[Keri Brenning’s story, and the last of our honourable mentions.]
The first weak rays of light streaked the sky and were greeted by the call to prayer. Sunrise was still an hour or so away and it seemed Scheherazade would survive to see the sun trek across the sky once more. She had performed for her husband well enough that she would be spared the fate of the countless women before her. She would not join the corpses of the broken queens, not yet.
Light and shadows creeping through the sandalwood shutters played with one another in the empty corridors. The scent of fine incense hung gently in the warm air. The soft padding of her silk slippers on the marble floor was the only noise to disturb the silence of her journey. The finery that surrounded her should have brought her joy, but it only served to accentuate the pain and fear she lived in, the pain she had lived in since her wedding day. No, that was not true, it was before that. It was a pain she had lived in since the king had slain his first wife. The queen’s betrayal shattered the king and set into motion the slaughter of hundreds of innocents. None dared to speak openly about it, but still everyone knew that one summer day, the king discovered his wife and her lover lying together and executed them both, savagely, with his own hand. That very day he married again and when dawn broke the next morning, his new bride too was slain. The king decreed that he would marry a new queen every day and have her slain on the following dawn. It may have been the queen’s betrayal that shattered the king, but it was the king’s betrayal that shattered his country, and Scheherazade could not sit idly by and watch her land be torn to shreds.
She begged and pleaded with her father to let her help, to give her the chance to end the king’s madness, to stem the tide of blood. As the king’s vizier he was responsible for finding new wives and had the power to grant her request, but he could not sentence his own daughter to death. Time passed, as is inevitable, and soon there were no more women to marry the king. Scheherazade’s father had no choice. He tried once more to dissuade her, telling her he could have her smuggled out of the country, but she knew she must wed the king. She could not shut out the cries of those innocents that were slain. She was bound to her duty, and could blame no one for her fate.
The king and Scheherazade were married, and her father feared that her wedding would be the last time he would see his daughter alive. He did not know that she had a plan. On her wedding night when she entered the kings quarters, she begged him one last request, “Please your majesty, may I tell my younger sister, Dunyazade a story one last time?”
The tale she had chosen specifically because it was exciting and lengthy. As light streaked the sky, it became clear that she would not be able to finish and her husband granted her one more day. That was a thousand nights ago.
She arrived in her private quarters, her sanctuary. Picking up the worn bone needles that had once been her mother’s, she set to work, falling into the trance that the elaborate lattice provided. Her world contracted into a single burning point of warmth and comfort, focused solely on the gentle click of her needles and the barest whisper of the thread as she effortlessly slid it forward across the needles, always forward; the past did not bare thinking about. She lay down stitch after stitch, occasionally performing the quick deft movements required to decrease a stitch and just as simply add a new one. Quick movements that created the seemingly fragile lacework of the scarf.
She paused for a moment in her knitting and noticed that on the floor, no more than five feet away, sat her sister. She had not even heard her enter. Scheherazade knew that the soft swish of the thread as it left her needles did not reach Dunyazade’s ears over the hum of her spindle. To watch her sister work, to see the raw piles black cotton sail away into a single strong fine thread, soothed her, just as her own work soothed her. Dunyazade’s creation was finest cotton thread she had ever known.
The cotton was black at Scheherazade’s command. “Black cotton,” She had said, “Black as the final night they lived through, Black as the fear that now plagues our land, black as the despair of our people.” The scarf she knit in their honor, in their memory. It was also knit for her. Every night she would go to her husband’s quarters and tell Dunyazade and her three children their tale, and every dawn she would offer her prayers of thanks and add another row to her scarf, another day to her life, while Dunyazade spun her another length of thread. The thread was never broken. Using the tail of Scheherazade’s thread as the leader for her next length Dunyazade would continue. “Just as you spin your tales, as you knit our king and our land together again, so I shall spin you the thread to do it with,” Dunyazade had vowed.
The scarf would not end until end of the killing. On her wedding day Scheherazade had ordered the raw cotton brought to her, and then she had asked her sister to spin it for her. “Spin a length for me , but do not cut the thread, it must remain united.” Dunyazade did as she was asked. That first evening of her married life, at dusk, Scheherazade took the length of cotton and cast on. When dawn broke and she was granted her life for one more day, she had Dunyazade spin another length and she knit a single row, to represent her life, to represent her story. She had no time to knit other things through out the days, tending to her queenly duties or scouring books for stories that were just right, just enough to save her life, but that scarf was always on her needles. No part of the scarf was ever torn out, it was always growing, but only a single row every dawn.
And now it held one thousand rows. One thousand rows for one thousand nights, and to Scheherazade that number seemed to hold a great importance. As darkness fell on her one thousand and first night, Scheherazade readied herself to meet her husband. Dunyazade entered her room as she had every evening for one thousand nights, the children in tow, excited for their ritual story. Scheherazade smiled and crossed the room to kiss her sister. “Dunya,” she said, ” return my sons to their room and retire yourself. You will not go with me this night. I go alone.”
Panic and a fierce anger rose in Dunyazade’s eyes. She gripped her sister’s arm, shaking her in her anger.
“Scheherazade, no! I will not allow you to go to your death alone! I will not!”
Scheherazade pulled herself free and hissed at her, “Keep your voice down! I am not a performing monkey Dunyazade! I do not dance each night for a few scraps of food! I fight for my life each and every night, and this man who I have born three sons for, who I have learned to love through all his sins, still demands this of me, still refuses to simply let me be…and it is time. It must stop now. One way or another, it must stop.”
“And have you not thought of us Scheherazade? What will become of the rest of us if you are wrong? What of your sons?”
” Who are you to suggest that I have not? How can you dare to involve my sons? I have lived nearly three years with this weight on me Dunyazade…”
The wail of Scheherazade’s youngest son pierced through their anger and they broke apart and turned to the children. All three of them were crying. Scheherazade turned to her sons and kissed and soothed and tickled them until it was as if the outburst had never happened.
“A story now mama, a story!” her oldest son demanded. She smiled slightly, ” No my love, not tonight. Tonight I go to see your father alone.”
“But mama…” he whined. “I will hear none of it,” she said firmly, “Listen to your Aunt Dunya and to bed with you now my sons.” She bent down to kiss and hug each one, as if it were her last time. “I love you.” She turned to her sister. “Do not argue Dunya, please. You know I cannot go on like this. Take care of my sons. If…if I do not see you in the morning, tell our father I love him.” Dunyazade looked as if she were about to argue again, but stopped. She nodded with tears streaming down her face and turned to usher her nephews out.
Scheherazade walked once again down the empty corridors and came to the bedchamber in which she had never slept, the kings bedchamber. She braced herself and strode into the middle of the expansive room. As the chants of prayer rang through the palace, dusk fell and the king entered. A look of mild surprise registered on his face when he saw that she was not in her usual place on the bed, the children arrayed around her. Scheherazade did not move, but met his eyes without hesitation. “Where are my sons?” he asked her. “I have sent them to bed my husband. I have no tales to offer them this night. I have nothing to offer but myself.” His face remained impassive. She continued, “I have given you three strong sons. I have given you my loyalty. I have given you my love despite the things that you have done. I have given you a thousand nights of tales,” she took a breath to steady herself, and came to her point. “I cannot help but wonder, husband, will that be enough?” her voice did not tremble, but a single tear slid down her cheek. He reached out a hand to cup her face. She met his eyes and saw his soul, stripped bare, and all his pain laid out. “Yes,” he said, his voice cracking, “yes, it will be enough.”
The morning dawned bright and clear. Scheherazade made her traditional journey through the halls, but this morning the emptiness held only peace, not foreboding. She reached her private chambers and found Dunyazade waiting for her there. She flew into Scheherazade’s arms and they wept and laughed together for a long time. Finally, Dunyazade lifted her head from her sister’s shoulder. “I have a gift for you,” she said, and, arm around Scheherazade’s waist, she lead her across the room to the finished final length of yarn. Scheherazade bent down and carefully picked up her needles. She toyed with the needles listlessly for a moment. She could not bring herself to bind the end of the scarf.
“It seems too final,” she said. Then inspiration dawned on her. Dunyazade gazed on, confused and intrigued. She heard Scheherazade muttering, but could make little sense of it “…a twist … his change of heart ….” Her pace quickened, and suddenly it was finished. Instead of two separate and final ends, the scarf was one continuous length, a circle, symbolizing the strength and unity that love creates and the endless possibilities of life.
[Keri Brenning’s story, and the last of our honourable mentions.]