by Nancy Means Wright
When I read of another tragic loss of life in the vicinity of Bahgdad, I think back to Scheherazade and the magical, mystical tales in The Arabian Nights, and recall how a suspenseful story saved a life.
After hearing his brother’s account of an unfaithful wife, Shah Shahryar discovered his own wife in a stranger’s embrace and, fed up with women, ordered her death. “Henceforth,” he told his minister, the Wazir, “you must fetch me a new bride, then each morning, lead her to her execution.”
Such suspense already!
Frightened parents hid their daughters, and soon the only girls left in the kingdom were the Wazir’s own two daughters, Scheherazade and Dunyazad. Scheherazade, the eldest, was bold, beautiful, and inventive, rather like a female sleuth from a modern mystery. Seeing her father the Wazir, panicked because of the dearth of brides, she said, “Just send me, Papa, to the callous fellow. Either I shall live–or die a death for all women (I think here of feminist Mary Wollstonecraft) and whatever happens, there should be nothing but pride for you.”
Naturally the Wazir calmed down a little.
And naturally, the Shah was captivated by the plucky Scheherazade. Yet remained resolute in his decree of death–he couldn’t lose face by going back on his word. But he promised his shocked countrymen that the executioner would use only the sharpest axe. Entertainment for all? So here’s the big question: Would she live–or die?
Scheherazade climbed into the sultan’s bed in the most translucent of nightgowns (a little excitement here), and the couple made love as though the world might end at first light–as indeed it would for the average exploited female.
But not for our crafty heroine.
For Scheherazade had a plan. She’d awaken her lord at midnight and beg to see her sister Dunyazad for the last time. Entering the shah’s bedchamber, the sister would ask for a story to while away the final hours–and Scheherazade would take it from there.
“One day,” our heroine began, “a fisherman removed the sealed stopper from a brass jar he’d pulled up out of the deep, and from its neck a giant plume of smoke poured forth and took the form of a figure with hands like pitchforks and teeth like tombstones.”
It was the wicked Jinni, furious at the world after his “century of bondage,” and vowing that the first man he laid eyes on after his release… “should die!”
On the story continued to its hair-raising climax. Then stopped.
“What happened next?” the fevered king shouted. “You can’t stop now. Go on!”
But alas, pink-faced dawn was creeping through the windows. “And now,” said Dunyazad, “my poor sister must die.” And she burst into appropriate tears.
“But if my good lord will let me live till tomorrow night,” murmured the wily Scheherazade, “I promise to tell you the end of the story.”
Whereupon the sultan, hungry for the tale yet overcome by the good smell of coffee, cried, “By Allah, I shall not kill her till the tale be told!”
So it went, night after night: Scheherazade completing the old story, then beginning a new. The king wholly enmeshed in the storyteller’s web. A thousand and one nights, hardly interrupted by the births of seven babes (midwives there to cut the cords, but never the narrative flow).
Then one eve our heroine gathered the sweet offspring to her breast, asked for a pardon, and the sultan, like many an avid reader, came to realize that he couldn’t live without his storyteller to stimulate his imagination with romance, suspense, and conflict–because life was too dull without it.
So he ordered his scribes to write down the stories on scrolls that others might enjoy them, and told Scheherazade to teach all the would-be storytellers the art of suspense. In this way the art was passed down through the ages to this very day. For storytellers must know, he said, how to tease their readers with a provocative pause–that the latter might come back again and again to find out “what happens next.” For without suspense, the axe would fall.
Today’s Scheherazades, both female and male, have learned this, have they not? See below for a few chapter-end teasers:
“For the first time in this annoying case, he felt the vague stirring of the waters as a living idea emerged slowly and darkly from the innermost deeps of his mind.” (Dorothy Sayers)
“Jackson sat bolt upright and grabbed the nurse’s arm. ‘My wife,’ he said, ‘where’s my wife?’” (Kate Atkinson)
“My master looked at me and said, ’I fear something has happened to Severinus.”” (Umberto Eco)
“The pressure was building, he could feel it, and the parting words of the maitre d’ came back to him.//’Tomorrow’s going to be a killer.’” (Louise Penny)
“Everyone of them, including his brother, had a pistol pointed at Billy’s heart.” (John Daniel)
“‘Lock up,’ he said. // Like never before, I thought.” (Camille Minichino aka Ada Madison)
“Then he looked at the three young women on the porch. ‘This isn’t over,’ he said. ‘You may think it is, but it’s not.’”
I thank Janet Dawson, above, for the perfect ending to this story-blog.