This story is paired with “The Fellah and His Wicked Wife” from 1001 Arabian Nights. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
And so it came to pass that on Night 777, he said, “Triple Draw Night, Sherry. What do you say we step out of the story for just one night? I am dying to know what happens next to old Haroun el Rashid, but angel honey, I want to do something different, just you and me, no one watching, and no writing it down. Promise.”
“I’m a storyteller,” quoth I, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“This must never go down in history books for my descendants to mock me for being less than a man, sparing you these past 776 nights, and who knows how many more nights to come.”
“Who knows indeed,” murmurest I, with a sly wink that inflamed him, as well I knew.
“I can already see them,” he moaned, “turbaned and robed and mocking their wimpy ancestor so listen, Sherry, no telling, no writing, silence upon this one night of all nights, and it’s not that I don’t trust you, my silver-tongued Siren, but for my own reputation, a little vow, a simple one, that none but those concerned, being you and I, of sound mind and body, swear to keep secret.”
“I swear,” vowest I, and all these years I have kept my lips sealed, as they seal the lips of the dead, stitched together (for a storyteller what worse Gehenna can be imagined?).
I swore silence and I kept silence, but these past months have been uneasy ones for me. He died before me, as the history books show, and left me with three sons—two of whom follow in their father’s swaggering steps (before I taught him how a true man walks through the world) and the youngest who follows in mine (wiser, steadier, the eyes of his senses razor-sharp). He is my nightingale and my lotus, and yesterday in my nightly spying (the only reason my sister, my boys and I still live), I came upon the most shocking sight yet: the sweet, graceful boy who sees beauty in every living creature and refuses to kill even an insect, was beating his young wife.
I hid in the shadows of the courtyard, and watched him beat her with a whip. I knew what I saw yet I doubted. It must be one of his brothers who had not learned the Parable of Master and Slave.
Grant me a moment to weep here. These dark splotches you see on the page are my tears.
I was ambitious, I admit it. I envisioned a dynasty born to power yet with the grace, imagination and wit of the storytellers. Imagine how different our land would be had storytellers reigned. We see far, far more than what is. We see what was, what lies beneath, what soars above, and what will be. All thousand and one variations of the future. Not a single narrow path circumscribed by the past. I imagined a free land divided in three—one section for each of my boys to rule with wisdom and kindness. Because we storytellers suffer when we kill a character, we do not kill lightly. We suffer over their hardships and weep into our arak at night.
Instead I gave birth to two warriors with no imagination and one poet with too much. His older brothers jeered at him, exactly the fate my husband foresaw for himself.
That night I entered my youngest son’s chamber and stood at the foot of his bed like a judge from the heavens.
He lay alone, curled like a snail, guarding himself from the light of day.
I spoke, and this is what I said:
“You are my light and my joy, my heart and soul. Stay gentle, my son. Don’t obey the blood that begs for battle. Listen. Your father was trapped in his role as King. He didn’t know how to escape until I set him free with the most powerful weapon of all: stories. I spun him a cloak of words that told tales of different lives and possibilities, a sultan who disguised himself nightly so he could be other people, experience other destinies. That is the secret of true freedom.
“One night your father begged me to release him from the grip of my story—our story—and to let him simply be. One night only. Do you know what he chose to do, my son?
“He took me with him to the great square where in the day crowds stream past, drums pound, people dance, steam rises from food stalls, beggars wail, the snake charmer lures his six-foot python from a basket, the desert pharmacist spreads his cures on a blanket, the henna woman tries to embroider your arms and hands with ink-scrolls. The storyteller weaves a spell that binds you with words. And everywhere are voices, a multitude of voices—beggars, vendors, the muezzin, singers, musicians, snake charmer. But at night it was empty, booths closed. A vast space like a white page waiting for a pen to scrawl over it and transform it. The square at night was promise and hope and freedom.
“In the silence, under moon and stars, your father took off his white gown, handed it to me, and moved in a slow, hesitant circle. Puzzled, I watched this naked man, pale and vulnerable without his royal robe and courtiers. A man. By himself. Dipping and rising. Slowly. Step by step. It was a dance. Clumsy, strange, a rhythm only he heard. Eyes closed, arms above his head, he moved his hips like the belly dancers. He was a strong man, with a hard chest, belly and thighs, and as he moved, I watched the skins of power drop to the ground. Like the serpent undulating to the snake charmer’s call, he danced until no skins or hides covered his bare flesh, until he was a boy no older than you, and for the first time, I confess it to you, my son, for the first time in 777 nights, I loved your father.
“When he had finished his dance, and stood lithe and fierce, he held out his hand for his robe and threw it over his head. In silence we returned to the secret entrance of the palace. We hadn’t said a word. He knew I understood. And now I have something to say to you. No need to sit up. I know you are awake and listening.
“Tonight I saw you beat your woman. She belongs to you. That does not give you the right. You are not your brothers. You are yourself, the son of a mighty ruler who shed his serpent skins one night to dance for his woman. Next time you are tempted to lash her, remove your skins. Let her see you naked. Let her see you. And ask her to dance for you. The way your father asked me.”
He sat up, disobedient boy. “And did you, ommah? Did you dance for my father?”
“Ah my son, that is another story. For another night.”
Ruth Knafo Setton is the author of the novel The Road to Fez and recipient of fellowships from the NEA, PA Council on the Arts, and PEN. Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies. She teaches at Lehigh University and on Semester at Sea, and gives writing workshops around the world.