This story is paired with “The Story of King Shahrayar and Shahrazad” from 1001 Arabian Nights. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
A woman—we will keep her nameless—lived near the king’s gardens. She gazed often in an oval mirror, asked it question after question. So many questions she asked that she too became a question, a torso turned into a curve, legs as one point rooted into a floor scuttling with snakes.
The mirror rattled and it said:
Our sky is full of burnt ravens:
Here you will find no true havens.
When you see yourself, you see
A past, memory of she you could be –
Alas, your soul lost in journey between
Carefree girl and short-celebrated queen.
The mirror cackled. You winced just a bit.
The mirror is the future unknown to you: What will he say? What will she say? What will they think? What will the king do after his desires?
The mirror is cloaked in stories you never spoke. Through the stories, you never see your own face. You see only hers, the one who is yet spinning a story each and every night. The only one to survive 1,001 nights. The only one who re-wrote our stories, the stories of all the red-laced women, each and every one.
So now let me tell you my story:
I heard a ghostly music, her sweet song with a bitter taste. There was no longer any you, there was only I, on the other side of the mirror, in a glass lantern with clean white walls, bleached, washed walls free of shine. They absorbed light and shadow, and I could not tell where the corners were. I did not feel fear, not at first. There was only relief that the mirror could no longer show me the red draped across my skin. I was peaceful, actually. I slept.
Eventually, white seeped underneath my eyelids, nearly blinding me. I had no choice but to turn my eyes to my arms, my legs, to the caked, red necklace that told the world I was royalty.
My sleep was not meant to last. Soon came the unending scream. It blocked out every perception I had left—sight, smell, taste—though the echoes of them still held on, even after the time where there is no after. I felt a shadow cast over me, thin and lean, with hair that crawled through me like a broom.
“My mind is bathed in red, and I have forgotten all other colors,” I said, turning to the girl beside me. She was swinging her legs on the flame.
The girl nodded as though she had heard my words before they were spoken. She was no more than fifteen, with white eyes that gleamed. She too had come for the siren’s song. “Yes, yes, red,” she murmured. “I too dreamed in reds. But now, I can no longer remember it, or any other color. The storyteller gathered them all and left. I have not seen with my eyes in a long, long time. Is it still there?” she said, gesturing towards the red dappling her heart.
She looked up not towards me, but to another shadow, and then another, and another. They were silent. They had not found their stories yet.
I nodded, letting the breeze carry my answer to her. “And yet, you made your way here.”
“I looked into the white. I could look nowhere else.”
“Why did the storyteller abandon you?”
“She did not abandon us. She discovered us. For years, we lived in the between-space between death and life, between desire and destiny, between fate and fortune, between a mother’s hope and grief. When the storyteller discovered us, she reminded us of our own memories. She reminded us we each had a story to offer. To each of us, to all of us, she said this:
Do you not think it suspicious I have no mother?
A father, a sister, a king surround me. But have you heard of my mother? No, neither did I. And yet, I too must have had one.
“Your mother was a whore,” my father’s sister said.
“Your mother was a sneaky gypsy,” my father’s mother said.
“Your mother disappeared when we most needed her,” my father said. “What kind of woman abandons her family?”
He knew not that she has been speaking with me through the years. She speaks in the whispers of swords as the king’s army goes off for its holy wars. She shouts secrets of the kingdom as the girls swing on the branches of the fig tree. She shines for our independence and quick cunning when the sun rises and the moon glistens. She has given me another pair of eyes so I would never be trapped by a rich man, a poor man, any man. She says to me:
“Never believe the stories you hear, my daughter. Become your own siren, the braid of a temptress. Look with eyes so the illusions of this world slither away like the scorpion in the desert at high noon. Never believe the stories that deny you a mother—they are told by ones who believe abandonment will break you. Who believe a girl is made to be broken. Who believe a girl will believe any story she is told.
“You will hear of demons and talking animals and genies. But listen for the echo. Listen for the words no one else will hear until you say them. Listen for the true demons, the ones who walk on two legs, the ones who wear crowns, the ones who deny we ever existed, who want to make every girl’s birth a funeral, even before you have breathed your opening breath.”
The girl began to sing to me as her hair coiled. A shadow joined her, and they sang of demons and talking animals and genies and a small fig tree. I felt coldness, my own. A small joy too. I told the shadows I had always been a chatterbox, youngest of nine – 8 boys and then me. I too spoke to survive, the way a fig protests in your mouth as you delight. But then my older brothers would practice their lutes, their setars and santurs. Quiet me. They shooed me away, drew me taut as a curtain clasping a gloomy day. They quivered their fingers. In their music, I could hear a girl weeping over a stained dress, the sun bursting into the king’s bedroom.
The songs continued to come. I remembered the rustle of silk, a smell of perfume and filth, the cold hard slice.
I felt the warmth of the flame, pressing, pressing against me, reshaping into the trees of a garden I recognized from my songs and hers. The storyteller cloaks us in a siren’s song, her trumpet gathering a flock no one could see. And I, too, obeyed, here only because of her. My eyes widened as the garden grew, revealing mirrors and mirrors of women crowding all the space I could now see.
The young girl’s hair caressed my hand. “Close your eyes,” she said calmly. I closed them. “Deepen your breath,” she continued, deepening her own breath to release a wind that covered me like a blanket. I breathed deeply, feeling my long scream subside.
She whispered, her voice a chorus: “They are not real, my sister. They are merely an illusion in the mirror. They were never real. But then your stories made them so. You made them so.”
Anjali Deshmukh is Director of Knowledge & Communications at Nonprofit Finance Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the way money is given and used to achieve social impact. Anjali, who is a visual artist, holds an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and is a Fulbright Scholar in Fine Arts. Recent accomplishments include a commissioning grant from the Queens Council on the Arts and exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum and Dumbo Arts Festival; her work can be viewed at www.anjalideshmukh.com She holds a BA from Amherst College.
Purvi Shah inspires change as a non-profit and media consultant, anti-violence advocate, and writer. In 2008, she won the inaugural SONY South Asian Social Service Excellence Award for her leadership fighting violence against women. During the 10th anniversary of 9/11, she directed Together We Are New York, a community-based poetry project to highlight Asian American voices. Terrain Tracks is her award-winning book of poetry. She is known for her sparkly eyeshadow and raucous laughter. Discover her work at http://purvipoets.net or @PurviPoets.