By: Andrew Gretes
Before marrying Scheherazade (let’s call her Cher), the king murdered two hundred brides in two hundred nights. His logic: I’ll kill you before you cuckold me.
On her wedding night, Cher dismissed her father’s fretting: “Enough with your induction! You can’t prove the sun will rise tomorrow, nor can you prove I’ll be dead.”
Every morning, the king made a big hoopla about sparing Cher’s life. Every morning, Cher’s father feared the sun wouldn’t rise.
On the 836th night of his 201st marriage, the king lapsed into a coma. No woman wept. The nature of the king’s illness suggested craft—“witchcraft”—to quote the merchants of Baghdad, for the king was catatonic—eyes open, mind shut—and no physician or miracle worker could wake the king’s ego.
Cher released a public statement: The doctors, when discussing my husband’s condition, use the word “incapacitated.” I prefer “renovated.” Otherwise, it was business as usual. Servants kept up appearances, puppeteering the king’s body, waving the king’s hands to his loyal subjects, and opening the king’s mouth for royal sustenance.
Suspicion mounted. Successors grumbled. A man named Baba was called in from Cairo to investigate.
They say Baba had a sixth sense, a hunter’s intuition. Baba knew where things had been. When Baba saw a child, he knew the mother. When Baba saw a dagger, he knew the killer. So when Baba saw the king—all comatose and pliable—he knew the culprit (that was a given) but the means eluded him.
Testimony of a fisherman (questioned by Baba):
Cher? Sure, everyone knows about Cher. How she stalled her death with a swarm of stories. Every night, another cliffhanger. Imagine her in bed—what a tease! I only met her once. She was pretty desperate, wandering the streets like a beggar, hoping someone might take pity on her and dole out a potboiler. She said we had a lot in common. Of course, I thought she was flattering me, but the more she talked about stories, the more her words looped together like a net. [Snaggletooth grin]. I pitied her fish.
Testimony of the king’s hunchback (questioned by Baba):
Jealous? I was more than jealous. I was superfluous! Cher could entertain the king, in more ways than one. [Heavy wink]. Oh, how I longed for the king to cut off Cher’s head, then repent, mourn, and summon me—his jolly confidant—to mend his conscience. But he wasn’t the same king. No one else could smell it, but the king stunk like an onion sprouting in a chamber-pot. Cher wasn’t just telling stories; she was peeling the king.
Testimony of the vizier, Cher’s father (questioned by Baba):
It’s funny, the king once pulled me aside, his pupils shriveled like raisins. He ordered me to execute his wife—my own daughter—even if he contradicted himself in the morning. Allah forgive me, I would’ve, but Cher must’ve eavesdropped on our conversation because she pulled me aside and told me one of her lovely nested stories: a story inside a story inside a story. It wasn’t until hours later that a servant interrupted Cher. By then, I had completely forgotten the king’s orders. What—when did I remember? Not till years later. The thought returned to me in a dream, delivered by a messenger on horseback, except he wasn’t riding a horse; he was riding me. [Shrugs]. In any event, the king hadn’t mentioned his wife’s execution in years, so I feared that if I carried out his orders, well, he would surely behead me. Yes, that too. She is my daughter.
Testimony of a genie corked in a bottle (questioned by Baba):
Admit it, you’re not going to release me. Oh, yes, quite true, I forgot—you promised. [Bottle-rattling laughter]. You know why humans invented promises? Because they were running out of material to break. What—the queen? Yes, quite an enchanting raconteur. One could get lost in her mouth. I’m sure that’s what happened. The queen told a story; the king followed her lips; the queen swallowed. You don’t think that’s possible, do you? Poor humans—so daft, so arrogant—you think you can exit everything you enter. Look at me!
Testimony of Cher (questioned by Baba):
This might sound like a digression. Many years ago, when I was a child, there was a Buddhist nunnery here in Baghdad. I often snuck inside, eager to overhear the nuns’ secrets. They tolerated me, the way a planet endures a moon. The nuns were always telling stories—tales intricate, layered, labyrinthine. I remember asking the nuns if they ever prayed. Apparently a stupid question. The nuns made no distinction between prayers and stories. What were they praying for? Health. To the nuns, everyone was ill: born ill, lived ill, died ill. Some were just more ill than others, but everyone was on the continuum. The nuns had a funny way of talking. When they were hurt, they would cry: “I, I, I, I, I!!” Selfhood was toxic. That’s why the nuns were always telling stories. It was an antidote of sorts. The deeds and hopes and fears of others trickled into the listener like rain into a noxious well. Health was dilution. [Half-smile]. You must understand, my husband was very ill. Practically frothing with himself. I did what any wife would. I cured him.
Andrew Gretes is the author of How to Dispose of Dead Elephants (Sandstone Press, 2014). His fiction has appeared in Witness, Booth, Passages North, and other journals.