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| Except for the eunuchs, only one man ever came to the garden of women and girls. That man was the Grand Vizier, and when he came, everyone had to cover their faces--except for me and my sister Scheherezade, because he was our father, and our mother was his only wife.|
When we lay on our pillows at night, Scheherezade used to say that she was tired of the garden and yearned for something to happen to us, for an enemy to attack and give us the opportunity to save the kingdom even at the cost of our lives or virtue. I used to find stories in books and read them aloud to her, and she would make me read again until she could recite the stories, and then she´d tell them to the little children and the big girls, and then to the women as well.
There were a lot of things in the stories and in the world that we weren´t supposed to know or do, but we knew and we did. Sometimes we would creep under the bushes and climb the vines and throw things over the wall into the boys´ garden, and sometimes the bravest of us would sneak out of the garden and explore the nearby halls of the palace.
A girl named Amina who had long pointy breasts said, “Soon you´ll be married, Scheherezade, and the only adventures you´ll have will be in your husband´s bed!"
I cried, “Tell her it isn´t so, Scheherezade! Tell her we will have adventures and do great deeds!"
“Ignore her," said Scheherezade. “Just be ready at all times. We may be called upon at any moment to save the kingdom."
Big Mouth Amina laughed, but a time was coming when she would cry instead.
One especially hot day we heard the mothers whispering about a new trouble. It seems that the Queen had cheated on the Great King (may-God-always-bless-him!), and he had become sick with fury. In order to recover his honor, he killed the Bad Queen and all her bad handmaidens. Then he killed some bad women who had no husbands and sang and danced for strange men. The Great King (may-God-always-bless!) would marry them in the night and kill them in the morning.
Amina said that the Great King was making it impossible for a girl to have a wedding. How could you celebrate your wedding when there was a funeral every day?
I said, “Who cares? Who cares about weddings?"
Scheherezade said, “If my wife committed adultery, I would tie her over a prickly bush and pull out her innards."
Amina said, “You better learn to be tame, Scheherezade, or else you´ll never get a husband!"
Then one day a woman in our garden got a message and started shrieking and ripping her clothes because her sister had been called to marry the King. The next morning, three girls were missing from our garden. We thought at first that they had been killed too, but then we heard that their parents had hidden them away. Everyone began to toss strange looks at Scheherezade and me because our father the Grand Vizier was in charge of bringing women for the Great King (God Bless Him).
That night in bed Scheherezade and I talked about it. I said, “It´s good for the kingdom to get rid of all the bad women, right?"
Scheherezade said, “It is noble to punish evil, but he´s killing good ones."
“If the Great King kills them, they must be bad! They have to be!"
She said, “It is noble and right to destroy the evil, and the King is ill with an evil."
“Shh!" I cried. “He can hear through walls!"
And then from under her pillow she pulled a long knife with a handle made of the same metal as the blade. She told me she wore it hidden in her garments in the day and slept with it at night. I started to cry.
“Don't cry little sister Dunzyad," she said. “This is a magic knife that only cuts out evil."
I said, “Tell me a story so I can go to sleep."
She told one of the stories I had found for her, about a brave girl who goes to the world of demons to save her father. That night I had a nightmare with a demon chasing me. And the demon turned into our father, and instead of jewels on the hilt of his scimitar were the faces of girls I knew.
Meanwhile, there were fewer and fewer girls in the garden. One mother told us that her daughter had died of fever in the night, but she wasn´t crying, so we were sure the girl was hiding in a leather bottle like the forty thieves of Ali Baba.
I said to Scheherezade, “We must think of a way to hide. We could dress like boys and go out into the world."
Scheherezade said, “We must think of a way to overcome the evil."
The next day, the only girls left in the garden were us and Amina.
And the day after that, our father came. We hadn´t seen him in weeks. He was dressed as beautifully as ever, with all the jewels encrusting the hilt of his sword, but his face was long and wrinkled, and his step uncertain. Our mother called for beverages and fans against the late afternoon heat, but he refused everything. He sat in the arbor. When our mother tried to speak, he waved his hand to silence her.
Finally, he said that he wanted to speak to the mother of Amina. From the other side of the garden, Amina´s mother started to scream. He shouted for her, and this time she came, rending her garments and making the funeral sound in her throat.
“It is the highest honor," said the Grand Vizier, “to marry the Great-King-May-His-Name-Be-Blessed."
“Amina is already engaged!" cried Amina´s mother.
“The King has asked for the virgin daughter of one of the great families--"
“No!" screamed Amina´s mother.
Our father bent his head and shaded his eyes. “She is to go to the King tonight."
Now Amina started to wail too.
“I have been sent to tell you to prepare her for her wedding tonight with the Great-King-May-God-Always--" And he covered his whole face with his hands.
Amina howled, her mother howled, our mother prostrated herself in prayer, and all the slaves and servants were wailing and waving their arms and beating their chests and ululating. It was a terrible din.
Scheherezade stepped forward. “O Great Grand Vizier," she said. “O Great Grand Vizier, my mother´s husband, father of my sister, and father of me! Hear O Father!"
Scheherezade reached out to kiss his hand, but he jerked it away. “Not that hand!" he said.
“It wasn´t you who killed the girls, O Father," she said. “It was the Great, Dread, May-God-bless-his heart King. He is the one who is sick!" Everyone gasped, but they gasped even more when she said, “I will go instead of Amina. I will go and heal the King."
“Quiet!" cried the Grand Vizier. “You are an ignorant little girl."
“An ignorant little girl, Scheherezade!" cried our mother.
“I will go to the King," said Scheherezade.
Amina shouted, “Let her go! She wants to go!"
The Grand Vizier´s face twisted. He said harshly, “Listen to this story, O Ignorant and Foolish girl."
He told a story about animals who could talk and got in trouble by being too clever, and then he told another about a man who could understand animals, but not women. In the end, the man beat his wife, and then he could understand her too.
When he was finished, Scheherezade said, “I will go to the King."
Our father told yet another story about punishment and death. When he stopped talking this time, Scheherezade said that she would go to the king, and he shouted, “No you won´t! I say who goes to the King!"
All the noise started up again, and the Grand Vizier threw up his hands and departed, but he left soldiers in our garden where men never come to make sure Amina didn´t run away.
In all the excitement, no one was paying attention to Scheherezade and me. She said, “It is our mission to save the Kingdom."
“We don´t have to, Scheherezade," I said. “Our father will protect us."
She touched her girdle where she kept the knife. “I need your help," she said.
“I have a better idea for an adventure," I said, “Let´s run away and hide in the cellars."
The thing about Scheherezade is that she only hears what she wants to hear. She said, “We are going to save the Kingdom, and that will be our adventure. This is the adventure that God has given us."
I said no.
She said we should leave immediately. So while everyone else howled and mourned, Scheherezade slipped out of our garden into the long halls of the Great Palace. I slipped out too, just to see which direction she would go. It was already shadowy in the corridors, and there were not many people around. She hid behind a staircase, and I followed at a little distance and hid behind a pillar. Wherever she went, I followed just a few steps behind, and soon we were far beyond anywhere we´d ever gone before. She saw me following, and I knew she saw me, but for a long time, I told myself I was going to go back.
After a while the empty halls frightened me, so I caught up to her, and she embraced me and told me I was far braver than she, because I was more fearful. That´s the other thing about Scheherezade. She makes you glad to do what she wants you to do.
There were so few people that after a while we stopped hiding and walked boldly down the corridors. Scheherezade told me that she would heal the King of his insanity with her stories. My job would be to praise her storytelling abilities so that the King would pay attention.
I was like a person in a dream. I said, “Someday, will they tell the story of Scheherezade and Dunzyad?"
“Someday, everything will be a story and all the stories will come true," said my sister.
We knew we were near the King´s chambers when we saw Mamelukes in the hall. Mamelukes are the tallest, strongest men in the all the world, brought from the four corners.
Scheherezade and I shouted at the top of our lungs, “Make way! Make way for the daughters of the Grand Vizier! We are going to the King tonight!"
We passed through hall after hall and at last came to a great arched doorway guarded by the two biggest Mamelukes of all: an ice white one from the North and an onyx black one from the South.
Scheherezade said, “We are going to the King tonight. We have been called to soothe his troubles by telling him stories."
Then there came a moment when I realized that this was not yet a story, that I was stuck in Scheherezade´s dream which was my nightmare and I could never go back. But while the horror was just beginning to seep through me, there was a tumult and shouting from inside the chamber, and we were almost knocked over by a fleeing crowd of servants with big platters of spilled food and broken bottles. Inside, the shouts turned to groans. In my terror, I clung to the back of Scheherezade´s clothes.
She stepped over a dropped tray, over the threshold into his chamber. I tried to stay behind her, where I couldn´t be seen. The room was high and dark with a wide low table and more spilled food and broken plates and bottles. It smelled bad in there. It smelled like the man in the bed needed cleaning.
He was lying on his side in bed as if he wanted to be asleep instead of awake. Only his face and one arm were out of the covers. Everything about him seemed thick and swollen. His nose was huge and his lips pouched out, and one eye squinted and one was wide and staring.
The huge head rose up when he noticed us and turned from side to side like a big puppet. “What? What?" he said, and raised himself on his elbow. “It´s a little girl," he said. “It´s a little girl and her shadow. It´s two little girls."
“We came in place of Amina," said Scheherezade, her voice high and thin.
“Amina, the girl who was supposed to come tonight."
“Girl?" said the King. “No girls! Only women!" And he reached out a huge hand all covered with ruby rings and swept more dishes and food off the table, crashed them onto the floor. “Go away!" he shouted. “Where´s my dinner?"
The servants came running back. “You sent your food away O Great King (may-God-always-bless-you!)!"
The King was rising up out of his covers, his naked chest dark and hairy and his huge face twisted with anger. In my eyes, he grew larger and larger, then shrank and grew again. I could feel darkness closing in around me, but for one second I had the strength to do what Scheherezade had asked of me. I cried, “Oh please King, listen to my sister Scheherezade! My sister came to tell you a wonderful story! Please listen to her story, she tells the best stories in the entire world!"
And then, I let go of Scheherezade and felt myself slipping, sinking to the floor, the whole room spinning, and the next thing I knew, I was lying on the floor with my face next to a pomegranate. The servants had gone, and the air was filled with my sister´s voice, the story about the demon who was going to kill a man for spitting date pits.
I had missed the beginning, but it was definitely the story with date pits and also date pits on the floor with me and the pomegranate.
Scheherezade sat beside the King on the bed with her hands folded neatly in her lap, and every once in a while the King grunted. The story went on and on and on. Sometimes I was awake and sometimes I was asleep, but I never lost track of the story. The night passed and dawn came in around the curtains. “That´s all I can tell now," said Scheherezade.
“Finish it," said the King.
She said, “I could finish it another day if you want."
I said, “She´ll finish that one, and tell another one better than the first!"
The King grunted. “Come back tonight then. I have work to do. I haven´t been feeling well lately. Go away now, girl, and take your sister Shadow with you. But come back tonight or I shall be very angry. I think I may have you every night." He almost sounded like he was joking. He had made up a nickname for me the way our father used to. He yawned and stretched, and waved us out. “Don´t forget though! Come back tonight or I´ll be angry!"
So we stepped through the great doors and discovered that the hall outside was full of people: Our Father was there with his garments torn and our mother with her face only half covered. More Mamelukes and eunuchs than I ever guessed existed, and Amina and her entire family dressed in their best clothing, and servants asleep on the floor.
From inside the King shouted for food, for his bath, for his scribe. He wanted to issue proclamations! He wanted to review the troops. Where was the Grand Vizier?
“Are you alive?" said our father as he hurried to the door. “Both of you?"
Scheherezade was so tired she just nodded.
I said, “She has to come back tonight to finish the story."
The Grand Vizier paused. “Was it the story about the merchant who hit his wife with sticks?"
“No, the one about the demon and the date pits," I said.
Our mother embraced us, and made the servants carry us home, and we slept for hours and hours and woke up and ate olives and bread and fruit and took baths and looked at the toys and new dresses the Great King (may-God-always-bless-him!) had sent. His message said that he felt better than he had in a year. He wanted Scheherezade to come back with more stories. He wanted stories tonight and every night. And Little Sister Shadow should come too.
Scheherezade frowned. “I didn´t think we would have to go every night."
“Do you suppose we´ll ever get to play in the garden again?"
She shrugged. “I don´t know. In the stories, you know what´s coming next. In real life, it´s a mystery."
Here is the rest of the story about Scheherezade and Dunzyad: first came the hundreds of tales we told the King. Some nights he would fall asleep early, and sometimes he was in a dark mood and didn´t like the stories and threatened to kill us, but he never did.
Then Scheherezade became a woman, and after her, I became a woman, and we continued to go to the King every night, and time passed, and she and I both had sons and daughters for the king. And for many years the King was calm, and the country was happy. He named Scheherezade´s oldest son to be his heir and the people loved the boy, and they loved the King too.
But then, the King´s sickness returned, and he began to storm and threaten again, and sometimes he killed servants and strangers. Then he began to say he would kill his children because they were plotting to steal his Kingdom.
And one night, after she had told the King the story about a man who has dreams and dreams within dreams, he fell asleep. I was napping on the couch, and like a dream within my dream, something happened in the night.
It seemed that Scheherezade´s magic knife appeared, and struck, and saved the kingdom.
In the morning, Scheherezade and I screamed for the Mamelukes because evil jinn had visited in the night and cut the king's throat. The Mamelukes agreed that it could only have been the jinn, and our father the old Grand Vizier agreed, and declared a year of mourning for the King.
Scheherezade´s son became the new King (may-his-name-be-blessed), and when our father died, my oldest son became the Grand Vizier. This brought to our kingdom a time of great peace, and we found kind, scholarly men to be the husbands of our daughters, and we taught all our children to be slow to anger and faithful to one another, and because our children are faithful, the people of the kingdom are faithful, and we shall all live happily until we die.
Meredith Sue Willis is a native of West Virginia who has lived for many years in the Northeast. Her most recent books include a collection of short stories, Dwight´s House and Other Stories, and a novel, Oradell at Sea, as well as a young adult science fiction novel called The City Built of Starships. She also publishes a free newsletter on books and writing at http://www.meredithsuewillis.com/booksforreaders.html, and her books on the craft of writing are published by Teachers & Writers Press.