Scenes beyond the scene
Taste beyond the flavor
— Sikong Tu
Very likely there should not be a finer fancy present.
— Gertrude Stein, ‘A Substance in a Cushion’,
No one discovered until eight AM, when the servants arrived, that Sultan Shahriyar my brother had died. Propped against pillows, arm over the crown of her head, Sultana Sheherazad was asleep when the palace attendants reached. She had finally slept, in the middle of a sentence, as the sun breached the hills on the horizon. Her sister, Dunyazad, who stayed in the royal bedroom most nights, used to wait for the Sultan to leave on business for the day to take her rest, so she saw what happened when the servants came to perform their morning duties. Every day that Sheherazad and Dunyazad lived in the palace, the royal retinue entered the chambers at eight AM sharp, in single file, with a eunuch named Ehsan at the head of the line.
Barechested under a rainbow macramé vest, in a pair of gold lame tights, Ehsan fumigated the halls and quarters of the palace residential wing with a generous aerosol of essential oils based on harmonized layers of frankincense, peppermint, lemongrass, and fir. He attuned the notes, proportions, and textures of the scents to the season, predicted weather, and the Sultan’s physical and emotional temperament the previous evening. Each night, when Shahriyar and Sheherazad retired to their bed, Dunyazad lazed on the chaise in the recessed hexagonal lounge at the center of the royal bedchamber, where she read or thought until the couple called her in to hear Sheherazad recite installments of her infinite narrative. The blend Ehsan prepared on the day the Sultan died bore overtones of cedar, with a hint of wild orange.
Fourth in line, the matron Kamaria was to rouse the Sultan from sleep. Shahriyar chose Kamaria for her supposed likeness to our mother, which he maintained was great, despite my valid protestations to the contrary, and the lists I provided of obvious characteristic differences. For one, I told my brother, our mother was younger than Kamaria, who was already in her fifties when Shahriyar hired her, which he rebutted with the assertion that Kamaria looked exactly how our mother would look had she lived. This assertion, I contended, was pure speculation, since there was no way to know how her unlived years might have marked our mother and moreover, I told Shahriyar, their smiles could not be any less alike: Kamaria grinned with her teeth and gums, whereas our mother, in every portrait I have seen, lifted only the corners of her mouth, and kept her lips drawn shut. Another important disparity I never mentioned to my brother was that I found Kamaria warmer and more personable than I imagined our mother to have been. Exasperated, Shahriyar concluded these rows with the one cruel fact that undermined the logical validity of my entire position. You never knew her, Zaman, he said.
The day Shahriyar died, Kamaria wore a maroon linen bellbottomed pantsuit with navy camel leather flats. Before she discharged her errand to wake the Sultan, Kamaria relieved the two young servants who preceded her of a polished copper samovar, from which she poured out three ginger black teas she then garnished with slices of lemon. The first she gave to Dunyazad, nearest the low table in the hexagonal recess, where Kamaria kept the samovar for the duration of the daily morning service. Once Sheherazad and the Sultan slept, Dunyazad as a habit rose from her spot at the foot of their bed, kissed her sister on the forehead, then returned to the chaise to await the parade, which she watched each day with her tea from the balcony. Meanwhile, the servants bustled about, washed clothes, dusted, swept, and mopped the apartment.
Dunyazad made a point to keep her back to the Sultan as he readied to administer the diurnal affairs of the Sassanid Empire. On occasion, maybe festive from his warm morning bath, the Sultan spoke to Dunyazad as he dressed. The accentors are back, he might have said or, Have you been to see the serin? Then Shahriyar would recommend that Dunyazad and Sheherazad visit some obscure oasis, in hopes they scope a swarm of rare tiny songbirds that rest their wings to eat and drink at desert springs in the course of their interminable migrations. Yet however chipper he might be, Dunyazad never turned to face my brother on those chatty days, but focused instead on the floats and gymnasts in the road below.
Days Shahriyar was talkative, Dunyazad said, he took an extra long time to dry off, tie his pyjama bottoms, button his kurta and his vest, place upon his head one of the many exquisite caps his haberdasher beset with jewels and embroidered with gold and silver thread, then don the simple shawl he wore to court and depart. Dunyazad said she could estimate his leisure from the location of the parade, so regular their pace, their routine so honed. From when the horn players passed the bakery two blocks southeast to when they reached the park further west was just seven or eight minutes, she said, where they turned left to cycle back again, in a serpentine route to the compound. Each coil of their path was equidistant. Plus the sun, said Dunyazad, who claimed that she could tell the time to fractions of an hour from the tone and intensity of the sunlight. Moreover, she counted days by the shape of moon. From the nights, she said.
Engraved upon the royal samovar were scenes from a story Sultana Sheherazad told, called “The Crane and the Tortoise,” which the Sultan so admired, he ordered his metallurgists to etch images from the tale into the samovar, so he might imbibe the wisdom of the parable as he prepared for work. Panels on the samovar depicted important events from the story in order. First, the crane perched on a rock above a corpse riddled with stab wounds on the bank of the river. When the ‘lions of the birds’ swarmed upon the corpse, the crane flew away in horror. The crane landed on a tree branch and got into a conversation with a tortoise on the ground, which culminated in the moment the tortoise kissed the crane between the eyes. Next, the crane returned to the rock and observed the skeleton of the corpse. Then, the crane and the tortoise both sat on the rock, until a hungry hawk swooped down and killed the crane for prey. Only one line of text encircled the body of the samovar in a band beneath the illustrations, a portion of proverb Sheherazad quoted via the mouth of the crane: The world is the dwelling of those who have no dwelling.
When Kamaria handed Dunyazad her tea, Shahriyar dead in the sheets, Dunyazad said she listened for the zurna. She could follow the parade through the streets, she said, and track their path through the audioscape of the city. Clear winter dawns, she could hear musicians tune, bandleaders fix positions, drivers laugh, jugglers drop their pins, horses neigh and nicker, as they waited to begin their march. From her perch on the balcony of the royal suite, Dunyazad could see, she said, the restive banners, poles askew, drums braced against the outer walls of shops, float plumes and streamers at ease in the distance.
Trips the Sultan suggested Dunyazad and Sheherazad take were always to places at most three or four hours away, so they could return at night for Sheherazad to continue her stories. Once she had lived in the palace for a few years, Dunyazad started to slip out for the day, to attend classes and visit with friends. She even held some jobs, she said, cleaned homes, washed clothes, cooked for the aged at centres, apprenticed to a veterinarian at an animal rescue shelter, substitute taught and tutored nursery and primary school students, farmed rice, fished, brewed beer and wine, acted in and directed theatre, roofed houses, waited tables at a local health food restaurant, managed the public relations team for a cosmetics brand whose products sought to complicate and heterogenise beauty standards, threw pottery, wove rugs, joined a contemplative religious order that focused on breath as both the site and vehicle for a fundamental and immediate encounter with the divine, fermented probiotic edibles and beverages, participated in psychological and cognitive science research experiments, pursued and attained a postgraduate degree in naturopathy, and opened a flower shop. For a month, I mopped slop at the docks for fun, said Dunyazad.
Sheherazad, meanwhile, studied more or less nonstop. Every week, there was a fresh list of titles to procure from regional booksellers and commission from explorers: Babylonian and Mesopotamian myths, Chuang-tzu, the Tao Te Ching, Buddhist tantras, sutras, and koans, Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika, the Oresteian plays of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripedes, Sappho’s poems, Medea, Antigone, the Ramayana, Kamil’s Treatise, The Bacchae, Don Quixote, Lost Girls, Manimekalai, Autobiography of Red and Iovis, as well as the works of Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous, Alenka Zupancic, and Rumi. All these and countless more, trundled through the gates with every overseas shipment of goods, along with whatever itinerant bards could be coaxed to the palace in person. Sheherazad hired pirates to track down digital prints of I May Destroy You, Twin Peaks, Nicole Holofcener and Maya Deren films, Wentworth, Fleabag, Girls, Atlanta, and The Wire. She demanded Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa and the albums of Nina Simone, Whitney Houston, Betty Davis, Sampa the Great, and Beyoncé. As ordinaries scouted and scrounged the Sassanid Empire for texts, Sheherazad collected her store of documents in the hall, which soon grew into a comprehensive library. While Sheherazad read, Dunyazed planted fruits and vegetables in planters three metres apart in the adjacent courtyard, where I took my morning and evening sun beneath the mottled shade of her many healthy apple and cherry trees. Before long, Dunyazad enlisted me to help with her garden.
Dunyazad said Sheherazad had designed and perfected a selection system that spat out story parametres, such as characters, circumstances for their acquaintance, their interpersonal dynamics, and numbers of nested narratives. With that information, Sheherazad covered the library tables with rows of open books she either selected at random or divined with a broken snow quartz pendulum and used her afternoons to memorize substantial portions of their content, which she then reconstituted into the tales she told at night. Sheherazad drank over two dozen cups of tea throughout the day, as she composed the interwoven sections of her endless series of stories, which she arranged no more than three days ahead of when she planned to recite them. The day Shahriyar died, Sheherazad was in the middle of a story within a story within a story when her head dropped at last to the pillows she leaned on while she talked. For five to seven hours every night, Sheherazad spun webs of fancy that, when she woke, she had to then digest again, reorganize, extend into new sections, and start once more from the same sentence she left off with at around eleven PM, when the Sultan parted the curtains and invited Dunyazad to join them. There are two Ariadnes, Dunyazad said Sheherazad said she had read. The sentence fragment from “The Prophet, the Messiah, and the Sultan” that Sheherazad uttered before she passed out at dawn was: Even though he feared the invitation, the Prophet did not hesitate when he received the request from the apostate Messiah to appear at the Sultan’s court. The point in her story at which Sheherazad dozed was an eerie prelude to the most unusual absence that day of her pardon from death.
Thanks to Sheherazad and the force of her stories, one thousand and one nights had already passed since his last femicide when my brother, Sultan Shahriyar, officially revoked his vow to marry a new woman every night and murder her in the morning. At that point, Dunyazad did not believe Sheherazad ever thought the Sultan would kill her if she stopped. Even on the first night, Dunyazad said, her sister was so certain of the power of her words and the integrity of the tales she told. Nonetheless, every morning for the rest of their marriage, Shahriyar continued to announce that Sheherazad would not be executed. He spoke this edict while he buttoned his shirt. Sheherazad said Shahriyar only pronounced her death sentence stayed each day as a comedic bit, but Dunyazad was never so sure. Sixth in line behind the maids, the punctilious scribe Javed arranged his plumes, inks, and parchments on the marble surface of a small, circular table near the Sultan’s wardrobe, where he awaited the first royal word. By the time the hand of the scribe took up his pen, Sheherazad would often have slept, so the announcement of her pardon went more to the servants, who no longer paused in their functions to receive the good news that Sheherazad would live through one more night. The day before Shahriyar died, Javed recorded the Sultan’s morning pardon as follows: Last night, my bride so captivated my attention, so aroused my insight and inquisitive impulses, with such an array of unequivocally inventive narratives, that I must discover what will transpire next, for which reason, Sultana Sheherazad will not be executed this day, but live until tomorrow, in order to continue her incomparable tale. Constant guest of the royal bedchamber, Dunyazad also witnessed Shahriyar deliver his daily decree, which he did not need to shout, but had to speak pretty loud, since his pardon tended to follow the rear drum guard of the parade as they departed into the western distance of the chamber’s sonic horizon. Her back to the Sultan, Dunyazad watched the stick and paper kites kids kept aloft in cadres behind the cacaphonous caravan.
On the day the Sultan died, the parade reached the bakery as Kamaria poured tea for Dunyazad and reached the park when the seventh attendant, Roshan, began to temper the Sultan’s hot bath with water from a large unpainted ceramic urn, which he filled at the courtyard fountain in the crepuscular predawn, where a few goats and a cat or two drank, nursed, and bleated. Dunyazad said she could discern, from how the servants synced in their work with the procession of performers, the general mood and demeanour of the city, which she claimed she could extrapolate to the pulse of the Sassanid Empire at large, and thus into the wilderlands beyond. Finished with the samovar, Kamaria placed the cups on a tray, put two spoons of cane sugar in the one for my brother, and delivered them to the Sultan and Sultana in bed. A sudden liquid gush at the tub caused Kamaria to turn to Roshan, who gripped the lip of the pitcher with an exaggerated expression of embarrassment and mouthed an apology. Roshan tested the bath with his fingertips and gestured that the water was fine. Kamaria carried the tray to Sheherazad, put her cup on the bedside table, then went to speak with Roshan and feel the water temperature as well, which she indicated was less than optimal, but ought to still be warm enough.
Sheherazad saved from execution inaugurated every entry of the Sultan’s official register. Beneath each date the phrase: Sheherazad lives. What began as a threat became a pact. Sheherazad did her part and Shahriyar did his. Dunyazad said she never imagined that he lay awake and listened to Sheherazad as she spoke through the night, but the personal physician to the Sultan warned him on multiple occasions about the deleterious effects of exhaustion, the excessive consumption of meat, and to not sit too long without exercise. My brother the Sultan, once fat and courageous, in his final days appeared to waste away with improbable haste, as if his body and spirit both were huge balloons a careless pinprick suddenly deflated.
From the moment I met and fell in love with Dunyazad, I lived as a vassal in the palace Shahriyar inherited from our father, Sultan Mihran. My adoration of Dunyazad and the abdication of my throne were my fist attempts at atonement. My kingdom of Samarkand, I relinquished to the able Government of my vizier, M. Qusay Hattab Rafati, to whom I would as much entrust my life. The day I left my post feels centuries ago. I am a wholly different person. Nevertheless, thousands of young women yet rot in my closet, their skulls discarded. The image is both figurative and true. I made a pledge with my brother to marry a woman every night and execute her the next day. For six years, I maintained the awful rite, which was twice as long as Shahriyar, who for the latter three was beguiled to peace with Sheherazad.
Samarkand is no village, but search parties shipped girls in from as far as Khiva, Tashkent, Atyrau, and Lagan. I had trade routes on the Caspian from Aktau to Baku. Markets flourished. A plague, said Dunyazad, on the scale of Exodus or the Minotaur. Figures near 2200 women. The same year Shahriyar met Sheherazad, I ceased to sleep with my victims, at least. Just married them and had them murdered in the morning. When I met and became enamoured with Dunyazad on a visit, I confessed to her my crimes and expressed my terrible guilt and regret. Dunyazad, however, recommended remorse. In the next breath, I avowed my love for her, which Dunyazad dismissed outright with a scoff, so I slept on stone in an alcove annexed to the stables, repented, and ate soup stems with broth from the boiled feet of herdbeasts.
The tale of “The Prophet, the Messiah, and the Sultan” occurred in a frame story about an aged bootmaker and arborist, who used to be a fisherman, and who once bequeathed an entire harvest of ceremonial pine boughs to the Sea King for the fish he took from the ocean when he fished. In “The Fisherman and the Sea King’s Daughter,” a young man visited the retired fisherman on behalf of the daughter of the Sea King and told him the story of “The Prophet, the Messiah, and the Sultan” when the elder expressed suspicion about riding on the young man’s back to the Sea King’s underwater castle. When the old man consented, Dunyazad said, the young man turned into a turtle, and they paddled off together toward the island palace submerged beneath the waves. Dunyazad and I had heard a draft of the story the day before, while I tended the squash beds in her courtyard garden and she harvested a basket of cherries. The Sultan was usually awake when Kamaria brought him his tea, so the day he died she was surprised to find him still unconscious.
Dunyazad watched fire blowers approach on the road from her seat at the window. The legend of “The Fisherman and the Sea King’s Daughter” was nestled into a more journalistic account of a conversation between two kings on a warship in wartime about what to do with the world when the war was over. Called “The Armistice”, the story concerned one king whose territory was located within the theater of action and another king whose kingdom was oceans away. The king whose domain faced immediate danger told the tale of “The Fisherman and the Sea King’s Daughter” when the king of the more remote and insulated lands confessed to doubts about the benefits of mutual investment in total military escalation.
Evenings, while Sultana Sheherazad pored over her archives and her sister painted or tended her garden, I borrowed a book from the library to sit with in the courtyard, where the seeds of the cherries and apples Dunyazad grew lay on sheets to dry in the sun. Why do you save them? I asked her once as she ran her hands over the germs of her harvest. Your contrition is all wrong, Dunyazad responded. Just as she refused to look my brother in the eye, Dunyazad did not meet my gaze either. Pain can never accommodate death, she said, though death may reconcile pain. So then? I asked. Dunyazad pointed to a line of tall, veinous leaves in the vegetable plot behind her. Weed the beets, she said.
Kamaria said his name twice, in rhythm with the hand drums on the street, where four young women stood on the backs of motorcycles and juggled several short swords between them. Kamaria shook the his left shoulder. She felt his head and checked for breath, then ran to get the royal doctor, who Dunyazad said declared my brother dead at the exact moment a banner that read LONG LIVE THE SULTAN passed beneath her perch on the balcony. Kamaria wailed and rent her garments, but Dunyazed said her lament lacked a principal pathetic element, as if she had rehearsed her performance of torment before. I cannot believe this has happened, Roshan said with affectless distraction as he pulled the plug from the drain in the bathtub. Javed opened a new document on his tablet with a few crisp taps of the stylus, scribbled the date, and under that inscribed: Sultan Shahriyar is dead. So young, said Javed. Then he dispatched Roshan to come and fetch me from my alcove in the stable annex. Although he may have left the chamber with the intention to fulfill his errand, Roshan ultimately wandered into the kitchen to ask after breakfast and texted me instead. Along the road outside the palace, parade performers did cartwheels, roundoffs, handsprings, and flips. Stunt drivers balanced vintage cars on two tires and bounced on their hydraulics in time with the musicians, who played a continuous air, while the singer sang the songs I wrote each day for Dunyazad. The lyrics to the tune that played through the confusion around the death of my brother, she said, went:
beside the gate to the garden
we keep for simple wage is
the best place to wait if
you want to see trim
As I reached the royal bedchamber, Ehsan atomised the Sultan with his unique aroma for the day. I was surprised that tears filled my eyes when I pressed my palm to the chest that held the still heart of my brother, the Sultan Shahriyar. Sheherazad awoke, tangled in her net of eternal narratives, and resumed two layers deep with the end of the sentence she began before she slept: For the Prophet was already en route to the Messiah when the missive arrived. Almost as soon as I began to cry, Dunyazad finished her tea and turned around.
Zachary Tichauer Bushnell writes poetry and prose. His poems have featured in Poetry at Sangam, Platform Magazine, and The Punch Poetry Issue 2023. His prose has appeared or will appear in National Geographic Traveller India, South Asia Journal, TimeOut Delhi, and The Bombay Literary Magazine. Zachary lives with his spouse and their toddler in Goa, India, where he works as an editor and educator, plus runs swim lessons for children and adults.