Shahrazad and Dunyzad sat on pillows in the courtyard, finishing their lunch of dates and figs and yogurt. It was Dunyzad’s birthday soon, and Shahrazad hoped to make the day special for her little sister, but it was hard to concentrate on planning a party, as she was to be killed at dawn.
"What would you like for your birthday?"
"I would like a flying carpet," Dunyzad said.
"Oh, those are just stories."
"They are not, least not in Baghdad. I heard you could make them out of the bark of lemon trees," Dunyzad said.
The young women sat beneath lemon trees their mother had planted in tubs, and Shahrazad looked at them now, thinking, what is the meaning of a lemon tree? Planting trees was a way to plant hope. Their mother hadn’t known whether her children would flourish after she’d passed on, but she’d planted the trees anyway. Now the trees were grown, providing delicious lemons, and shade from the hot sun; their smell was enchanting, and masked the problems with garbage collection.
"City of Peace," Shahrazad said.
"What does that mean?" Dunyzad asked.
"Baghdad. It’s the City Of Peace," Shahrazad said.
"Yes, I know, but what is the meaning of peace?" Dunyzad asked.
Their impending doom did not mean that the sisters disengaged from their usual discussion of history, philosophy, science and literature. If anything, their talks had increased in intensity.
"Well," Shahrazad said, "Peace means lack of war, but it means other things too. I think it means waking up in the morning and not being terrified."
"Why did you have to volunteer?" Dunyzad asked.
So you could live, Shahrazad thought. Shahriyar would’ve gotten to you eventually.
Dunyzad changed the subject back to flying carpets, having sadly listened to her sister’s silence long enough. "Solomon had one. A big green one with a canopy of birds to shade him from the sun."
"But that was a long time ago, and Solomon was practically a divine being. He was windmaster, so quite naturally he could make any carpet fly. I haven’t that power." Shahrazad yanked Dunyzad’s hair.
Dunyzad yelped. "What is with you today?"
"I’m sorry. The problem, Dunyzad, is I can’t think of a story for tonight. I’ve told so many: all the Sinbads, and Aladdin, and New Lamps For Old."
"Don’t be ridiculous," Dunyzad said. "You’ll think of something. You always do."
That night, Shahrazad rubbed Shahriyar’s feet with oil of myrhh, wondering whether she and Dunyzad would ever get north to Baghdad, city of all her favourite stories. Dunyzad was right; a flying carpet would be very handy.
Shahriyar grumbled. "That’s it then, the end of Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri-Banou? I knew you’d run out one day, little woman, and that you’d meet your dawn fate like all the others. Such is the fate of women; I’ve decreed it."
"Seemingly," Shahrazad said meekly, her mind searching haplessly for a new story she could weave into the ending of Prince Ahmed.
Dunyzad, pretending to be asleep on the couch at the foot of their bed, tossed uncomfortably. She was uncomfortable. She couldn’t believe her sister couldn’t think of a new story. Shahrazad, a few years older, was one of the most educated women ever to have lived. She’d studied storytelling since she was very young, committing to memory tales from all over the world. She was famous, and tall, and while not beautiful, walked with a stately charm, exuding an unusual confidence Dunyzad had always thought stemmed from her learning, a confidence she suddenly seemed to lack. When Shahrazad had first come up with the plot to save themselves and all their girlfriends from Shahriyar’s ridiculous decree, Dunyzad had sighed happily. Of course Shahrazad could do it. She was the woman for the job. It would be a snap. But tonight, the four hundred and thirty-second night of Shahrazad’s storytelling, she floundered for the first time, and for the first time Dunyzad understood she might fail, and that Shahrazad might after all be killed at dawn like so many young women before her, and that she, Dunyzad, might be next, she who had no learning to speak of, preferring to talk about clothes and parties and hair ornaments with the other girls her age. She’d been able to get away with that. If something troubling came up, Shahrazad would deal with it. She always had before. But what if she didn’t, tonight?
And it struck Dunyzad for the first time what a difficult and lonely job Shahrazad had taken on. Who else in all India or perhaps all the world, had committed hundreds of stories to memory? Who else, under pain of death, could regurgitate them nightly to an illogical king. If Shahriyar killed all the young women, who would his sons marry? Who would father the next generation? Out of an idiotic pride, he’d kill off the human race. The man was clearly a moron, unable to do simple mathematics, without the smallest understanding of human reproduction, but powerful nonetheless. Dunyzad tossed, her discomfort growing. The only way to overcome power was with an equal or greater power, one, she guessed for the first time, neither she nor Shahrazad after all possessed. There must somewhere be a man, for, sigh, likely it would have to be a man, with the strength to over come King Shahriyar. And then it came to her.
"When a man is stalked by terror," Dunyzad whispered fiercely, "when the man turns and stalks the terror; when that man lives to tell the tale over and over, that man becomes a hero."
"Who?" Shahriyar mumbled. His head was buried in a scented pillow, and he mistook distance and timbre and thought Dunyzad’s voice was Shahrazad’s. Dunyzad’s heart skipped a sickening grateful beat; she waited for her sister to pick up the tale, for it was s story she’d of course first heard from Shahrazad, one of the few she’d actually memorized in part. But Shahrazad just froze, as if the familiarity was there, but the story itself still missing.
Dunyzad ground her teeth as quietly as she could and whispered again, hoping against hope their luck would hold out. "He saw the great Mystery, he knew the Hidden: he recovered the knowledge of all the times before the Flood. He journeyed beyond the merely distant; he struggled beyond mere exhaustion, and then he carved his story on stone."
"Who?" Shahriyar turned over, and again Dunyzad’s heart skipped, this time twice. She thought she might die, and the irony was not amusing. The king would notice now that it was she who spoke and not her sister, and that would break the rules and Shahrazad would be dead by morning and Dunyzad would sit under the lemon trees for the rest of her short life until her own inevitable demise, far too sad to even weep.
But Shahrazad’s eyes brightened suddenly and she sat up, abandoning the king’s overly rubbed, excessively myrhh smelling feet, and throwing her arms wide, she cried, "Gilgamesh!"
"Hmpph. How did we get to this Gilgamesh from Baghdad?" Shahriyar asked suspiciously.
"It’s all about Baghdad," Shahrazad insisted. "It always has been. The fairy had to go back to Baghdad, but she was stopped at the gates, and asked a question. She was told if she couldn’t answer it, she wouldn’t be let in."
"What was the question?" Shahriyar asked.
"The gatekeeper asked Peri-Banou who built the walls and temples of Uruk."
"What’s Uruk?" Shahriyar asked.
"A ruined Sumerian city a little south of Baghdad," Shahrazad said.
"And did she know the answer?"
"She did not. And so she made camp outside of town that night, with another of her magical inflatable tents, and sucked pomegranates, spitting seeds with a venom, accidentally hitting a fellow jinni in the face. He was annoyed but agreed nonetheless to help her, by telling the tale I’m about to tell."
"And afterwards Peri-Banou was let into Baghdad?" Shahriyar asked, "now she had the answer?"
"Precisely," Shahrazad said, hoping she’d remember to pick up this thread later. At least the king hadn’t asked what the fairy’s mission in Baghdad was. He’d taken for granted it must be important which was unusual as the fairy was a woman, and women were not very important in Shahriyar’s mind, were they, or he wouldn’t have had them all killed. Or maybe it was the opposite; they scared him so much he had to get rid of them. That was a kind of importance, was it not? The ability to illicit terror. Although, possibly Shahriyar just assumed Peri-Banou was meeting her husband in The City Of Peace, and Shahrazad was guilty of projection. In any case, she’d have to save these thoughts for next day’s strategy meeting with Dunyzad under their mother’s lemon trees. If there was a next day. She’d better concentrate, not go woolgathering, interesting and philosophical as it might be. All the same, Shahrazad made a quick mental note. She herself liked her narratives properly structured. The king might forget all about Peri-Banou’s mysterious mission in Baghdad but Shahrazad herself would not. She hated loose threads.
"Of course the fairy will be let into the city. But we have to get back to Gilgamesh the king first. Gilgamesh saw all." It often seemed to Shahrazad that all the best stories took place in that desert region sweetened by the water of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. She wove out of Baghdad, backwards several millennia in time but a short cross-country hop to Uruk.
"All?" Shahriyar asked, disbelief staining his voice with petulant sarcasm.
"Be quiet and listen," said Shahrazad, "Oh king, unsurpassed in kindness among men."
"Kindness?" sniffed Shahriyar, not smelling a trap. "Manliness, more like."
"Yes, manliness," Shahrazad agreed quickly, "So anyway, Gilgamesh was the hero who saw not quite but almost all; I have to agree that’s more likely–they must have been exaggerating when they said all–but they also said Gilgamesh carved his story in stone for all and that he was the one who knew all. They said: no one has ever built walls like these. Stand on these walls and feel the wind in the darkest night. Feel the wind leap away to the heavens above from the walls below. Feel the straining muscles, paining tendons, and aching joints of those who built this wall. In this wall is hidden a story of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh who ordered these walls raised by labouring hands."
"Gilgamesh, always Gilgamesh," sighed Shahriyar.
"You don’t like this story?" Shahrazad whispered, a little worried.
"I do. I just wonder if they might tell my story in a thousand years like they tell his."
"Of course they will," Shahrazad said and wondered if that would turn out to be true.
"Go on then," Shahriyar sighed, curious in spite of himself. "Go on with this confounded Gilgamesh."
"Very well," Shahrazad said. "It is my pleasure." And in a funny way it was, as it all came back to her: Enlil and Anu and Inanna, wondering what might be done about Gilgamesh, somewhat like poor Shahriyar now. He had seemed daunting even then, so daunting Aruru herself had given birth to Enkidu for him, someone as wild as he to calm him down. "Gilgamesh," Scherherazade continued, "who walked these walls, Gilgamesh who touched these walls, Gilgamesh who stood on these walls as the cold night wind shied from it. In this story learn what fear taught him, what sorrow taught him, what friendship taught him. Learn how fame came to him, he who wanted no fame. Learn how wisdom came to him, he who never sought it. Learn how he reached divinity, him humbly born.
"I can’t quite agree with that," Shahrazad interjected her own tale, partly because it seemed illogical and partly to placate Shahriyar’s pride, "as he was two thirds god in his lineage, and only one third human to begin with. So it’s not as if he had all that far to go to reach divinity."
"It makes me feel better, too," Shahriyar said. "If he was a mere man, like me, who would be the greater?"
"Is there anywhere a greater king who can say, as Gilgamesh may, "I am the greatest king in this world?" Sorry," Shahrazad apologised, "but those are the next lines."
"Maybe me," Shahriyar whispered.
Shahrazad patted his feet. "Yes of course, and anyway, it was so long ago. If you’d lived back then, surely you’d have given old Gilgamesh a run for his money, we all know that."
Shahriyar smiled and patted her hand. "Go on, my dear."
That story took days and days to tell.
At the end of Gilgamesh, it being so long, and there being so many parts to it, twelve nights had gone by. Dunyzad’s birthday was two days hence, and it seemed to Shahrazad that even after all their work and panic, she and Dunyzad were faced with the selfsame problem as before they’d begun telling the Sumerian epic. But one had to be grateful for the small gains one had made, twelve days of life, and so she began the afternoon session with her little sister on a happier note.
"Thank-you for saving my life," Shahrazad told Dunyzad under their mother’s lemon trees.
"Thank-you for saving mine," Dunyzad responded. "But maybe just to be sure we should plan ahead a little for tonight. So we don’t have to go through that again. I thought I might vomit from fear."
"Plan?" Shahrazad asked. "I work best under pressure."
"Yes, of course but, do you have any notion what you are going to tell tonight? As I haven’t a single idea," Dunyzad said, hinting she might not be able to save the game a second time.
"Well, answer me this," Shahrazad said, remembering her loose plot thread, "why did the fairy have to go to Baghdad?"
"So she could save it?" Dunyzad suggested hesitantly.
Saving was the big theme of the day, it seemed: first saving themselves and all their fellow young women from Shahriyar, and then an entire city was at risk. Shahrazad shuddered.
Dunyzad was staring into space, as if weaving her tale out of the ether. "The fairy had to go to the future," Dunyzad suggested.
Was it possible that in the future things might be even worse than they were now? Still, Shahrazad was intrigued. "How is that done?" she asked.
"She’s a jinneyah, for heaven’s sakes. She’s probably got some kind of trans-temporal rug or whirling engine for that sort of thing."
"Interesting, Dunyzad. I’m not usually so creative," Shahrazad said. "I’m a scholar. I don’t actually have that much imagination."
"But you work well under pressure," Dunyzad insisted. "You proved that. Maybe your imagination is ready to surface now."
"Or yours. Let’s hear what you’ve got." Shahrazad restlessly began combing out her sister’s hair.
"Be more careful today, please?" Dunyzad said.
"Promise." Shahrazad loosened her grip on the comb and on her sister’s tresses. She had to admit, she liked it when Dunyzad helped. She was used to being the competent, overprotective older sister, allowing Dunyzad to remain a charming child. But in her heart she knew it tired her. It was nice having two brains working in tandem. It helped a lot.
"Um, let’s see," Dunyzad said, still staring vacantly, as if transcribing her tale from some cuneiform-engraved wall, millennia hence. "Let’s say Peri-Banou is told by her new best friend the pomegranate fairy, that far far in the future, there is a great empire far far across the world. They intend to destroy Baghdad, with powerful machines of war."
"Wow," Shahrazad said, impressed. "Maybe I’m the scholar, and you’re the one with the creative imagination; you just didn’t know it till now. We could make a great team, little sister."
Dunyzad broke trance to clap her hands, warming to the game, the challenge, responsibility, life. "We’ll be unconquerable!"
Those words made Shahrazad feel safer than she had since their mother’s death. She was so grateful Dunyzad hadn’t said, "you" as in the past. Now that her younger sister’s dependence was waning, Shahrazad could admit how exhausted she’d really been. "I’ve been tired enough to forget stories," she said, "imperil not only our own lives but the lives of all the young women of the kingdom."
"Be quiet now," little Dunyzad said. "You’re disrupting the flow."
Thereafter Shahrazad listened intently, committing her sister’s story to memory.
"That makes no sense," Shahriyar complained that night. "How would they get the war machines from there to here. Across the sea they could go in ships, but what about across the land?"
"They had flying war machines,"Shahrazad said. She knew, because she’d asked the same question herself, and that was the answer Dunyzad had given her.
"Warlike carpets?" Shahriyar asked.
"Perhaps. This empire of the future is far more powerful than Persia or Chaldea or Sumer or Babylonia, or, indeed, the Abassid Caliphate, although in the future the country surrounding Baghdad is called Iraq. The ruler of this empire does not like the future ruler of The City Of Peace, who is an unpleasant man, to be sure. But far from being true foreigners, these people tell in their religious stories about Abraham, who came as you know from Ur. They tell the story of Abraham to their children at night, yet each day they send more soldiers and more war machines, surrounding Iraq with more weaponry and troops than it had ever been surrounded by, before. They do not like the future ruler and they say he has hidden secret weapons, evil jinn."
"Ah!" Shahriyar said, excited. "They’ve surely forgotten Solomon captured all the evil jinn in bottles so that they might do no more harm. That is why the empire was afraid. Surely Peri-Banou reminded them of this fact."
"Yes, and so she did," Shahrazad said. "But they said the future ruler had found some of these bottled jinn, and was waiting to secretly use them against the empire. And also, they wanted the ruler, who was not nearly so nice as you it is true, to give him all their hidden evil jinn."
"But then they would have even more weapons against Baghdad. Why would this ruler who was not nearly so nice as me be foolish enough to do such a thing?" Shahriyar asked. "It’s beyond comprehension. And very bad war strategy."
"One might well ask," Shahrazad sighed, secretly enjoying the fact that even Shahriyar now, with his excitement and his questions, was becoming almost a co-storyteller. Usually he just lay like a loaf on a heap of pillows, passively listening, expecting her not just to spin tales but give an excellent foot massage at the same time. But now, astoundingly, Shahriyar was sitting up, so engaged was he. Next he might even give her a foot massage in return for the hundreds she’d given him. She liked the thought. Her feet were sore as if she’d travelled all Sinbad’s miles herself. Maybe the stress was manifesting as achy feet. Shahriyar wouldn’t be very good, not at first. But she’d be patient, flatter him, give him time. That was how badly she wanted to be given a foot massage instead of always giving them herself. It was a skill Dunyzad refused to learn, alongside hair. Shahrazad always had to do her own, and her braids came out a little uneven because of it.
"Also, the rulers of the powerful empire across the sands, the lands and the air might be tempted, once they had them, to release these jinn against their own people, might they not? " Shahriyar asked.
"I hadn’t thought of that," Shahrazad said, impressed, and luxuriating in her little rest from doing all the talking.
"Power corrupts," Shahriyar said.
"Not always," Shahrazad said, although she wasn’t sure.
"And absolute power corrupts absolutely. I should know," Shahriyar whispered, and Shahrazad pretended she hadn’t heard, for fear he’d retract, although her heart melted a little then for this evil powerful childish king, and her eyes opened wide in astonishment at his sudden self awareness, something he’d never seemed capable of before. "So what does Peri-Banou do?" he asked, his voice full of concern.
"What happens is, Peri-Banou arranges a meeting with the leader of this aggressive empire, and tells him a story. I think his name is Mr. Tree, or perhaps Mr. Burning Bush, or maybe Mr. Shrub."
"Burning Bush! That’s part of the Abraham story, isn’t it?" Shahriyar asked.
"Moses, actually. Although Abraham is mentioned. All the stories of the blessed land surrounding and between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are linked, backwards and forwards and sideways through time."
"You are so smart, Shahrazad," Shahriyar said. Again, Shahrazad pretended she hadn’t heard. If she did this, maybe he’d keep complimenting her, and maybe her heart would continue to thaw towards him, bit by frozen bit. She wasn’t banking on it, but she liked the feeling. In Shahriyar’s company it was novel, and frozen hearts were painfully numb, after all.
"At their meeting the fairy told Mr. Shrub the first half of a beautiful story and then turned to go."
Shahriyar looked plainly amused, and not horrified as she’d feared, a little. Would he bend to see his own reflection? Would he have the courage to laugh at his own murderous foibles, or continue to punish her and all young women for the sake of his insecure vanity?
""I must hear the end!"" Mr. Shrub cried!" Shahriyar practically shrieked, gleefully picking up the thread of this futuristic version of the tale he knew so well, the tale he was part of, the tale they would indeed still be telling about him a thousand years hence.
Shahrazad breathed out a huge sigh of relief, and at the bottom of that breath found courage to go on, to risk her plan to its end. "Exactly!" she said.
"What story did Peri-Banou tell Mr. Shrub?" Shahriyar asked.
"Oh, I don’t know, Shahriyar. Sinbad, or Ali-Baba or some such thing. You pick."
Shahriyar chuckled. "It’s Prince Ahmed, of course."
"I was hoping you’d choose that one. And you’re right, of course. Mr. Shrub actually knew the story already, for it was preserved, as were the other stories of that amazing land, such as Gilgamesh, and Abraham. But that didn’t matter: she was such a good tale-teller, telling it in the most compelling way, and with unsuspected twists and turns. She stopped just before reaching the end and just as you said, Mr. Shrub, disconsolate, cried, "I must hear the end!" And Peri-Banou said, "I will tell you the end on one condition," and Mr. Shrub asked, "What condition is that?" Peri-Banou answered, "you must spare Baghdad and my people."
"And did he?" Shahriyar asked.
"What do you think?" Shahrazad asked.
"I think he did, as I will now spare yours and Dunyzad’s, having been shown my own face in your delightful and wise storytelling mirror."
"Are you sure?" Shahrazad asked, trembling suddenly more than a little.
"If they bomb the place of flying carpets, what will we poor humans fly on?" Shahriyar asked. "We haven’t Solomon’s skill."
"We’ll plant lemon trees, make carpets out of the bark," Scherezade said sadly, quoting her little sister.
"I think," Shahriyar went on, "what Mr. Shrub needs is to hear each night a story so enchanting he stops the bombing, doesn’t lay Baghdad to waste. If they destroy Nineveh and Ur, the ancient cities by the Biblical and the Koranic rivers, still winding their way through Mesopotamia after all these years, the Tigris and Euphrates, are they not bombing their own cradle? Have they forgotten Iraq was once Sumer, a land which gave birth to our oldest story, The Epic Of Gilgamesh? Are they not bombing the womb of our mother, the womb from whence we sprang?"
"Maybe that’s it. Maybe they don’t like Her, and that’s why they want to bomb Baghdad," Shahrazad suggested, enjoying Shahriyar’s speech.
"Shahrazad," Shahriyar continued, "witchy storyteller, woman of surpassing intellect and cunning, they need you. You yourself are Peri-Banou, you must be, just as she is you. And both we and they need your little sister too, little Dunyzad whom you so love. For yourself, would you have cared enough to stay alive or would you have accepted your fate with equanimity knowing you’d return to this place wearing another face, facing another day. But she would have been so bereft had she lost you, and so you mustered your trickery, your word weaving spells, out of love for a sister, to spare all sisters. Might we all do the same."
"Does that really mean you’ll spare not just my and Dunyzad’s lives," Shahrazad asked, "but the lives of all women, and not just for one more day–"
"But for all time," Shahriyar said. "Agreed. On one condition."
"Shahrazad, will you marry me?"
"I thought we already were," she said, puzzled.
"That was a bit of a marriage of coercion, even if you did so bravely and foolishly volunteer, my Queen. But what I intend now is a real marriage, Shahrazad. I’ve had more fun with you than I’ve ever had, and I couldn’t stand it, never being able to sit up all night, weaving stories with you. We could be equals, the way the Koran says men and women must be."
"So what does it mean?" Dunyzad asked the next day.
"It means I cannot give you a flying carpet for your birthday, and I cannot give you a jinni in a bottle, even a nice small friendly one, but we can live."
"Really?" Dunyzad asked, more than thrilled, and proud of herself too for playing a big part in this lives saving operation. "What happened?"
"I told your story last night and it was good enough to keep me alive, and you alive, and all our sisters alive, not just for one more day, but for all our lives. But I couldn’t have done it without you, Dunyzad. You have the imagination my learning needs to light it on fire. As a team, we’re unstoppable. You mustn’t ever stop inventing stories, now that you’ve begun."
"Are you going to stay married to Shahriyar?" Dunyzad asked.
"Well, last night he was quite amusing. He sat up, instead of lying there like a lump, and had interesting and useful things to say."
"He’s very good-looking," Dunyzad said.
"Yes. Looks were never his problem."
"I think you are a fairy yourself to be so clever, Shahrazad," Dunyzad said.
"That’s what Shahriyar said last night, and he was right. Didn’t our mother tell you who our father was? Once, as a young woman wondering whether she’d ever find true love, walking the banks of the Tigris, she found a blue green bottle in the sand, its stopper engraved with Solomon’s seal. She pulled the stopper, and..."
"But if he was in a bottle," Dunyzad protested, "then he was one of the evil ones Solomon imprisoned."
"Maybe once. But not once our mother started telling him stories."