“In the Embrace of Darkness”

“Do you not know that a feast cannot be merry with fewer than four companions, and that women cannot be truly happy without men?”

The curtain rises.  Darkness, that furry old familiar of night, spreads itself onstage.  It means to stay, this sinuous, long-tailed night, moulting its woolly skin again and again, a thousand times if necessary.  Or a thousand and one times—a safer measure of uneven infinity.

There are four figures in this night’s embrace, two men and two women.  One of them, a man, sits apart from the other three, kneeling behind a screen, or a door.  He holds a plaything in his hand, an ancient, blood-dripping sword.  His back is straight and rigid with waiting.  Though he is well-armed, his wild eyes brim with fear.  Who knows what unfathomable, magic-tainted visions he must sit through, what terrors of the night he must strike down before they unman him?  This is Shahzaman, sometimes called Zaman, Sultan of Samarkand.

Of the remaining trio, two are on a low bed.  Two, a man and a woman, Sultan Shahryar and his most recent bride, Shahrzad.  Here too there is a sword, but this one seems a mere ornament.  It is a grand, showy thing of gem-encrusted gold; and it lies on the floor, almost innocent, almost forgotten.  Not far from this pointless spectacle is a modestly robed and veiled woman, Shahrzad’s younger sister.  She, Dunyazad, crouches monkey-like on the floor, waiting for her cue to ask a question, or exclaim piously, or gasp, or groan or sigh at the right times.  Her eyes concentrate on Shahrzad, her words and gestures, on the whole scene—with the man, the woman and the bed—as if she will never let go of it.

The bed is a moist, rumpled mess of sweaty silk.  Though the half-naked man on it is a fastidious king, he does not seem to have noticed the hint of slime and stickiness on his sheets.  He is seated, propped up against pillows, this Sultan Shahryar, listening.  His eyes are fixed on the talking woman, his new wife, Shahrzad.  Her head is bare, her hair hangs unpinned and dishevelled down her back.  Her hastily worn robe does not quite cover her damp neck, or the breasts with the fresh, red marks swelling on them.  But her sultan does not see any of this though he is staring at Shahrzad as if ready to devour her.  He is willing himself, this king with the lion’s appetite, to see her words, flesh them out; draw strength from them once he has confirmed their trustworthiness.

Shahrzad, the woman who is talking for her life, does not look frightened.  She must be though, how can she not be terrified?  This could be her very last performance.  Even now, dawn is making its way up the palace walls, considering the window where it must bare its sword-toothed yawn.  The sultan may say this morning, or the next: “That’s enough storytelling!  Off with her head!”  Shahrzad does not betray her fear, but as night nears morning, she stoops now and then, lifts the hem of her robe and wipes the sweat on her neck and face.  Or she throws back her neck, holds her goblet high and drinks deeply, eyes shut.  What she does not swallow she holds for a moment or two, rolling the liquid in her mouth as if she is tasting it for the last time.  Then she wets her lips with her tongue and begins again.

Dunyazad’s lamp lights the room.  Its small but stubborn flame is a mirror that stalks the woman who is never still. It picks up her image and stretches it across floor and wall, a second Shahrzad, elastic, shadowy, massive; a matriarch of impressive proportions.

Shahrzad appears to be the only person in the world gifted with movement.  The three other figures in the scene hold still as if bewitched into their waiting, listening postures.  But Shahrzad, though solidly built—her breasts heavy domes, her legs palatial pillars—flows in one continuous glimmer of movement.  Her words are not always elegant or apposite or even her own.  But for the space of the night at least, all that is vital in this palace is here, in this sweating, exhausted, ambitious body. It is she who holds the scene together.  If she stops, if she collapses, if she loses Shahryar’s interest or attention, the roof could cave in, and with it, all hope of the city’s deliverance, or its sultan’s redemption.  Sometimes, mid-sentence, Shahrzad pauses as if to take stock of her audience.  Her eyes move from Dunyazad on the floor, crouched like a suppliant, to a half-naked, half-believing Shahryar on the bed, to the unseen Zaman, kneeling behind the door, his breath wheezing with impatience as he waits for her to finish.  Shahrzad’s eyes turn shrewd; she begins again.

This self-absorbed scene lives on, shamelessly immortal.  It unfolds itself every night for a thousand and one nights.  It could be the entire play itself, all of life compressed into a permanent entanglement—so self-contained does it seem, so complete its power over the players who make up its four limbs. But this scene is only the heart—though the hungry, searching heart—of a much larger body.  The scene lives in the shade of a ragged, porous umbrella of a story, a wandering story, said to haunt travellers on the roads leading to paradise.

This story is propped up by a pair of upright, stallion-mounted brothers.  Two pillars, tall, firm-backed, standing apart from everything around them.  Each holds a kingdom at the crown. Each brother rules, not over mere cities and fields, but over his property.  Not over men and women, but over his subjects.

When the story begins, the brothers have already enjoyed their royal status for twenty years.  Since we are to know them so intimately for the next twenty or more, we look to the storyteller for clues to satisfy our curiosity about our heroes. There is, for instance, a father, “a Sassanid king who lived in the lands of India and China” and who “commanded armies, courtiers, followers and servants.”  But it is not clear what role he played in his sons’ lives except to provide their kingdoms when he died; his own for the elder son, Shahryar, and Samarkand for the younger son, Shahzaman.  So the storyteller is vague about the father, and indeed about geographical location, beginning with the familiar all-encompassing realism-resisting formula, “It is related—but Allah alone is wise and all-knowing…” As for the mother (or mothers), the storyteller is completely silent on the point.  Surely even Shahryar and Shahzaman must have required the services of a mother before they mounted their steeds, snapped their fingers to summon waiting slaves?

The two brothers, when we meet them, are orphans.  We also know they care for each other, because when the story begins, Shahryar, not having seen his younger brother for twenty years, feels “a great longing” for his presence.  It has taken him a while to notice that he misses Shahzaman.  But when he does, he is quick to act.  He summons his right arm and guardian angel—the wazir we will accompany on his hard and solitary journey as minister, father and upholder of the faith.  Shahryar orders this wazir, his trusted chief minister, to travel to Samarkand immediately and invite Shahzaman to his city.

Till this turning point, a longing and an invitation that will alter the fate of many men and many more women, the brothers—our elusive storyteller tells us—are happy.  They are happy in their legacy, the legacy to rule, having been taught to mount, steer, lord over, from the day they were born.  They are renowned (particularly Shahryar) for their horsemanship, having sat on haughty white stallions before they learnt to walk.  We know nothing of Shahzaman but his cleverness with a horse, and his rather ambitious name, shah-zaman, shah of time, ruler of the age. But the principal heir, Shahryar (shahr-yar, friend of the city, master of the city), is also reputed to govern his kingdom with such justice that all his subjects love him, such as the love of a subject is.  So, two kings mounted on their thoroughbred horses, from that height surveying the world around them, dispensing what is right and wrong.  Shahryar and Shahzaman must have become aware quite early in their lives of their entanglement with justice, and that they, with the advantage of height, could dispense it as they chose.

Between these two oases of justice lie unconquered deserts and wildernesses.  Shahryar’s wazir makes a dangerous journey to deliver the invitation that will reunite the brothers in more ways than they expect.  We are not told if this is the same wazir who will one day be equally famed as minister and as father, but for our purposes his courageous journey may provide the clue. What are deserts and wildernesses to a man who has already fathered a martyr-in-the-making?

The wazir delivers the message of brotherly love and longing from the just king Shahryar.  Shahzaman is properly overjoyed, and with alacrity appoints his wazir deputy ruler and sets out with “tents, camels, mules, servants, retainers.”  So much is the background, the necessary (if sketchy and moth-eaten) setting of our tale.

Shahzaman is in a camp a few miles from his city.  The gates, closed for safety, are still in view, though somewhat diminished in size and grandeur by distance.  Zaman wakes; and finds he cannot sleep again.  He emerges from his tent and meets night.  Zaman encounters the deepest part of night, the unadulterated splendour of moonless darkness.  There is something about this velvety, cloud-textured universe that is not so easily escaped or domesticated; especially when a man is alone and naked, without the twin crutches of city and palace, under a vast, brooding sky.  For a minute Zaman is overwhelmed by the size, the depth, the blackness of it all—this world which he has always believed wore his kingdom like a proud and substantial jewel.  Zaman’s throat is clogged by a little lump, just the size of an insignificant nut.  He blinks, swallows with difficulty.  His eyes water.

The storyteller turns sly here, as if suddenly sensitive to royal privacy.  We are left to imagine why Zaman who commands “servants and retainers” chooses to go back to his palace alone; or why he leaves the camp secretly; or why he enters the palace through an entrance known only to him, up to his rooms by a hidden staircase.  There is some half-hearted mention of yet another gift for Shahryar, a gift conveniently forgotten in the palace.  The storyteller would have us believe perhaps that Zaman, like any of the subjects he rules, would go fetch it himself.  Or is the gift so valuable, so essentially private in nature, that only he can set eyes on it?

In that moonless darkness that so disturbs Zaman, he wakes up and his memory summons a great ruby that lights up in glaring crimson the unknown terrors of the night.  He goes back, he must go back, to find the ruby himself, see for himself what this terror is that has woken him so rudely, dared to plant its seed of doubt in his royal heart.  He must make the unknown known, tear it from the embracing arms of darkness.

His ardour for knowledge, a dusky, beckoning secret, is richly rewarded.  In the heart of night, he finds his room.  The pale gleaming body of his wife lies on his bed.  Two muscular arms—though he can just about make out the ebony contour of one elbow—hold her in blissful sleep.  A deeper shade of black flows into the room.  A sword dangling limply wakes at the touch of a quick hand.  It moves forward and pierces, slices all the flesh before him.  Zaman’s vision of the foul woman and the black slave is dying as a wet blanket spreads itself between his eyes and their locked embrace.  Now he can see only blood, all of it an identical belligerent ruby-red so he can’t tell whose it is. Swiftly he wipes the sword on the bed and races back to the camp. He wakes up his men and orders them to set out immediately. Though his queen will probably wait patiently for him now, he is in a hurry to get to Shahryar’s city.

Shahryar, hearing that Zaman is at his city gates, hastens to meet him in style.  Feasts and other entertainments begin.  But Zaman is pale and preoccupied.  In answer to Shahryar’s enquiries, he can only say, “I am afflicted with a painful sore.” (The sore in one version of the story is black; in another a giant; but always a slave.  And in all of them Zaman is struck by the fact that he is barely out of his city.  What did the woman plan to do once he had actually left?)

Shahryar suggests a therapeutic hunt, but Zaman remains behind in the palace.  Alone, he trails from room to room as if in search of something.  Then he finds himself at a window overlooking the royal gardens.  Zaman takes a deep breath and trains his hungry eagle-eyes on the scene below.

It is day this time, but almost on order, a door opens, and not one but forty slaves, twenty women, twenty men, emerge. Zaman sees his brother’s wife among the slaves, leading them to the fountain.  She looks up and he retreats quickly, but even from behind the lattice screen he can see her undressing, then stretching out naked on the grass.  All around her clothes pile up in satiny bushes, the whole world is shedding trousers, robes, veils.  A naked circus cavorts before Zaman’s eyes, its hungry, panting contortionists twisting themselves into impossible shapes. Zaman watches. His face has turned bloodless, as if all their hands are round his neck, squeezing.

Though he is far above the garden Zaman can hear the queen’s invitation to one of the slaves.  Her call, “Come, Masood,” must be a familiar one because he sees the man go to her promptly.  As on a signal the others grope for each other, the remaining twenty women and nineteen men, though Zaman is not keeping count, smothered as he is by their grunting, saliva-dripping kisses.  But then he pushes their sweaty bodies off him and his head clears.  He is soaring now, relief has given him light wings and saved him.  He is not the only one; in fact, his brother’s wife is worse than his.  He turns away from the window, feeling a sharp, healthy hunger.  It is time to break his fast and enjoy his brother’s hospitality.

Naturally Shahryar is surprised by this sudden return to health and good humour.  But at first his questions draw out only the Samarkand part of the story.  Zaman pauses, giving his brother time to let the images (and their implications) sink in. Shahryar is now alert.  He can feel his body bracing itself to meet a blow, from an enemy he still cannot see though he can recognise the smell of its treachery.  He listens to Zaman describing the orgy in his own garden in all its inflaming detail.  Zaman hangs his head in sympathy.  Shahryar is still officially a just king, a Friend of the City.  He refuses to believe it till his own eyes have played witness; but the brothers feel very very close.  Zaman, with his recent experience of clandestine operations, suggests that Shahryar pretend to go on another hunt, but actually conceal himself in the room with the view.  The two brothers will then confirm together, inevitably, that women, even their wives, their noble queens, are tainted with untrustworthy desire.

Now it is Shahryar’s agony which is in the limelight.  Our storyteller tells us he is “half demented” at the sight of his wife and slave women cuckolding him in his own garden with his own slaves.  Unlike Zaman he does not draw his sword and drown the disgrace in blood.  But that he is truly Zaman’s brother is revealed by his proposal: that they renounce their royal state and roam the world till they meet another king who has been equally (or more) dishonoured.

The brothers travel far till they reach a seashore.  While resting under a tree, they see the waves part and a huge black pillar thrust itself skyward.  In terror they scramble up the tree and watch a gigantic jinni come to the shore with a chest, open it up and remove a box.  The box in turn opens to reveal a fresh-faced girl rising like a pale and trembling moon.  The jinni, her supernatural master, gazes at her with satisfaction, lays his head on her knees and falls asleep.  The girl looks up and spies two pairs of awestruck eyes that barely blink, afraid they may miss something.  So wide-open and receptive are these eyes that they seem to have mastered, instantly, the entire language of gestures.

In the girl’s look and moving hands they now read, “Come down, he is asleep.”  Then, “Come down or I will wake him up.”  Her mime is so effective that she gets immediate results.  They slip down the tree trunk one after the other.  Again she tells them without a word (and what signs these must have been, these unnamed gestures that issue a sexual invitation with the postscript of a threat), that if they do not sleep with her (“pierce her with their rapiers”) she will wake the jinni.

She pulls her clothes deftly over her head without stirring a muscle below her waist.  She arranges the clothes in a nest on the ground.  Then she lifts her jinni’s head, gently, gently, a ripe and bloated pumpkin that will fall to the ground and hurt itself if she is not careful.  She smiles lovingly at the tranquil bald head gleaming on his new pillow.  Then she turns to the brothers, spreads her legs.

The brothers still their trembling bodies and meekly take turns mounting her.  It is a swift, silent business, a novel experience for both men in more ways than one.  When she has had enough of them, she reaches for the jinni’s sleeping head and her clothes.  She removes a large purse from a pocket and pulls out a string weighed down with ninety-eight rings.  She takes Shahryar’s ring and Shahzaman’s and adds them to her collection. The ravished brothers shudder. In this moment, in what appears to be a sudden rush of insight, they are convinced they can read a life in a face. They read the girl’s story now, in the gloating face she wears as she looks down at the jinni, his head back on her knees.  The jinni carried her away on her bridal night when she was still a virgin, but since then she has been unfaithful to her master a hundred times, always in his presence and without ever being caught.

What comfort to discover a shame larger than one’s own!  The brothers recover as if they have been fed a magic potion; what are they doing in this desolate witch-infested spot by the sea when a palace, a city, a whole kingdom waits for them?  They turn back, their freshly polished pride crowning their heads again.  Once in his palace, Shahryar has his wife, her women slaves and their black lovers killed.  (He, unlike Zaman, retains his royal fastidiousness about messy blood and sticky hands.)  Perhaps it is the same fastidiousness that dictates his new harem policy.  Women (or wives, or queens) are necessary; celibacy never occurs to him.  The ideal plan: find a fresh virgin every day; marry her for the night; in the morning, there are eunuchs, wazirs and executioners who will see to the dangerous woman whose desire has just been awakened.

The plan flowers into action.  Brides enter the palace, and even before the inmates have learnt their names or faces, they are meat for the executioner’s hungry axe.  Shahryar does not know it, but he has ensured that his name will be inscribed in myth and history much longer than his palaces, monuments or his conquests.

Three years pass.  The city thins; even loyal subjects may prefer flight to giving up their daughters.  Shahryar’s wazir is reduced (or so our storyteller would have us believe) to confiding in his daughter about the severe shortage of virgins in the city.  Shahrzad, he must know, is an ideal candidate.  He has named her well, shahr-zad, born of the city.  Not only is this child of the city chaste but clever, ambitious and quick-tongued. The wazir tells Shahrzad a somewhat double-edged cautionary tale, almost confident that she will not take fright.  Once she volunteers to be the bride—though she talks of being a saviour or a martyr, not of bridal delights or dreads—there is a chance that this bloodthirsty story will head towards a happier ending.  At the end awaits salvation, and to get there Shahrzad must reconcile the sultan to the hard lot of men.  With the help of her silent sister Dunyazad she must coax him to repent, and acknowledge that all women need not be killed.  A thousand and one nights later, it is all accomplished.  When we part from them, the brothers are united with the sisters.  The story ends onstage.  Offstage it has just begun.