Trigger warning: references to domestic abuse and attempted murder
Something I was not quite prepared for when I started this project was just how long each story would take to cover. This week I’m determined to finish the current arc, which means an enormous segment. You have been warned! Also, if you need a refresher on exactly how the caliph, his vizier and his executioner came to meet three women with a penchant for binge drinking and bizarre rituals, all segments of the Sharazad Project posted so far have been linked on the ‘Fairy Tale Meta’ page, and for the beginning of this particular story you can go back to Week 5.
When we catch up with the characters this time, they are at the caliph’s palace and the eldest of the mystery women is finally about to tell her story. The black dogs she beats each night are her older sisters and the two women she lives with are her younger half-sisters. All were born to the same father. After his death – closely followed by this woman’s mother – each girl was left a sizeable inheritance. The oldest girls married merchants and join them on a voyage, but both men turned out to be appalling cads who not only lost all their wives’ money, but abandoned the women in foreign countries to boot. Where are the wrathful ifritas when you need them?
It takes five years for the eldest sister to get home, a year longer for the second – both are homeless beggars, reduced to rags, almost unrecognisable to their younger sister (henceforth known as the storyteller, because there are so many sisters). She takes her siblings into her own home and for some time they live in comfort, but despite their terrible experiences the older women are determined to marry again. “My dears,” the storyteller replies, “there is no longer any benefit to be got from marriage and good men are hard to find now. I don’t see any advantage in your proposal.” Getting lectured by their(happily single) baby sister does not elicit caution; the women each remarry without consulting her. Being an awesome person, she covers the costs of both weddings even though she thinks they are a bad idea.
Turns out she was one hundred percent correct about good men being hard to find, because the second marriages take exactly the same pattern as the first and in a few years both sisters have returned in a pitiful state. Instead of shaming them for their poor choice in partners, the storyteller welcomes them home. I just like her SO MUCH.
In time, she decides to travel abroad herself, being a trader in her own right. Equipping the ship to her satisfaction, she asks her sisters whether they would rather come or stay home, and they choose to accompany her. Prudently leaving half her wealth behind in case the voyage goes badly, the storyteller sets off for Basra, but her captain is incompetent and sails the wrong way, so where they actually end up is a mysterious city in the shape of a dove. While the women are disembarking, the captain goes to look around and comes back full of awe. “Come and wonder at what God has done to those He created,” he tells his passengers, “and seek refuge from His anger.” They soon see what he means. Every living thing in the city has been transformed into black stone. Their valuables remain untouched, though, and no one shows the least hesitance in raiding the place.
In the city is a castle. Within its walls the storyteller finds a sumptuously dressed king frozen in state among his guards and advisors; in the harem, the queen is a silk-wrapped statue, transmuted while sleeping in her bed. The storyteller continues her search, opening another door and stepping into an ornate chamber. She sees lit candles and realises someone is still alive in here. In her attempts to find that person, she loses herself in the labyrinthine castle and by nightfall is a little alarmed. She manages to find her way back to the chamber where the candles were lit, and where there’s also a comfortable couch. Reciting prayers from the Quran (also known at the Koran), she settles to sleep.
At midnight she’s woken by a beautiful voice, also quoting the Quran. Reassured that her companion is probably okay, or at least very devout, she follows the voice into a small chapel where a handsome young man sits reading aloud. He doesn’t display any particular surprise at her arrival. In exchange for her own story, he agrees to tell her what befell his city. The storyteller sits beside him, taking in just how hot he really is. After so much poetry about women’s beauty, most of it in sexualised terms, it’s nice to have half a page from the female gaze.
Anyway, what did happen to this city? The young man’s father is the stone king, his mother the queen. Their people were Magians, worshippers of fire, but the young man was raised by a secretly Muslim nanny and adopted her religion. Shortly after her death, a thunderous voice shouted out “Citizens, turn away from the worship of fire and worship God, the Merciful King.” That turned out to be a misleading secondary title, because when they held fast to their own religion they were all turned to stone. The only one left untouched is the prince. When he tells her how lonely he has been, the storyteller suggests he come back with her to Baghdad. She explains that she has a ship waiting, and charms him into accepting.
Night eighteen reveals that she spends the rest of the night sitting at his feet, presumably listening to him read aloud. In the morning, they take what valuables they can carry and return to the ship. The captain, who has been searching for his lost passenger, is surprised at the story of the city’s downfall but happy enough to take an extra man aboard. The sisters are not so good natured. If their insta-hate is ringing any bells, that’s because a gender-swapped version of these events was part of the very first story cycle.
The storyteller suspects nothing. When her sisters ask what she plans on doing with her dazzling new friend, she blithely turns to him and proposes. “Sir, I want to say something to you and I would ask you not to refuse me. When we reach Baghdad, our city, I shall propose myself to you in marriage; you shall be my husband and I shall be your wife.” He agrees. It’s a bit adorable. Her sisters pretend to be congratulatory but are still plotting. Once they arrive in Basra, they drag the sleeping storyteller and her fiance across the deck and tip both into the sea. He cannot swim, and drowns.
Though overcome with grief, the storyteller manages to stay afloat with a plank of wood and is at length washed ashore on an island. She finds a narrow bridge connecting to the mainland and crosses, heading for the city. Suddenly she sees a terrifying sight: a snake as thick as a palm tree being pursued by a skeletal dragon. As the dragon seizes its prey, the snake weeps and the storyteller takes pity on it. She grabs a stone and kills the dragon with one well-aimed throw. Released, the snake whips out a pair of wings and flies away.
The storyteller sits, a bit stunned. Exhaustion catches up to her and when she wakes, there’s two black dogs beside her and a strange girl massaging her feet. Weirded out, the storyteller sits up and asks who the girl is – only to be told she’s not a girl, not exactly. She is one of the jinn, and was fleeing her enemy in the shape of a snake when the storyteller came to her rescue. In thanks, she collected the storyteller’s cargo and sank the ship. WHAT. What about the crew?! It wasn’t even to kill the treacherous sisters, as they are now black dogs. In another display of terrifying powers, the snake girl takes the whole family back to Baghdad, depositing the storyteller and the dogs on the rooftop of their old home. She tells the storyteller that if she will not beat her sisters every day, she will join them as a dog. What a foul contract. Though she hates the work, the storyteller has no choice.
The caliph is amazed by her story. Turning to the second of the three women, he asks why she bears whip scars and she begins her tale.
Having taken her share of the inheritance her father left behind, she marries a very wealthy man who shortly dies and leaves her an exceptionally rich widow. One day an old woman comes asking for a favour: her daughter is to be married but as she has no acquaintances in the city, the occasion is looking very sparse. If the widow will come, many other important women in the city will likely attend too. The old lady is crying and reciting sad poetry. Sympathetic to her plight, the widow not only agrees to come, she offers the bride some of her own clothes and jewels to wear.
Which makes it a real shame that the whole thing is a trick. Thinking she’s being led to a wedding, the widow is instead brought to an opulent chamber where a beautiful girl sits waiting. This girl is an emissary from her brother. He has a crush on the widow and, being apparently unwilling to introduce himself in any normal way, arranged this con so his sister could pass on a marriage proposal. Bizarrely, the widow accepts. Only then does the man in question emerge from hiding. Admittedly he’s very pretty, the widow is particularly taken with his eyebrows, and for an hour they sit together talking. Then a gang of officials come marching in, a marriage contract is drawn up and the young man lays down one rule: that the widow must look at no other man but him and obey no one but him.
RUN, GIRL. RUN LIKE THE WIND.
She does not. They feast and sleep together and for a whole month things seem great. Visiting the market one day, the widow goes to one particular shop because its owner – a young man, are you getting worried yet? – is known to the old woman, who is now her servant. He brings out his most expensive fabrics and the widow selects what she wants, but he will not let her pay. “By God,” he exclaims, “I shall not accept anything from you, and all this is a gift from me in exchange for a single kiss, which is of more value to me than everything that is in my shop.”
RUN, GIRL. RUN LIKE THE WIND.
She does not. Nor does she want to give that kiss, but the old woman pooh-poohs the marriage contract and pushes her mistress into agreeing. Finally giving way, the widow permits her admirer to kiss her cheek – and he bites her instead. She faints.
When she comes to, the old woman is plotting guiltily. She leads her mistress home and tells her to fake illness, but the young man spots the bite mark and the widow kind of loses her head. She invents a couple of stories – being struck by shards of wood tossed up by camels and donkeys – and both times the young man threatens to kill anyone and everyone who could have been responsible. “Are you going to kill everyone because of me?” his wife says, rather sharply. “What happened was a matter of fate and destiny.” He suddenly works out what really happened, or some approximation of it, and started howling about betrayal. Slaves comes rushing in. The young man orders that she be cut in two and her body fed to the fish of the Tigris. I’ll repeat, WHERE ARE THE WRATHFUL IFRITAS?
The slaves are not happy about their orders. The one holding the sword makes sure his master is really serious, then plays for time by asking the widow if she has any last requests. This gives her the opening she needs for starting a verse battle. Her husband throws angry poetry at her; she hurls back reproachful quotes. It’s not enough – he repeats his order – but then in comes the old woman, who turns out to have been his nurse as a child. She tells him that the girl deserves no such punishment, but is clearly an unreliable sort and should spend no more time with him. So can she go? NOW?
The young man beats his wife unconscious first. Then he has her slaves dump her at her old house. For weeks afterwards she is too ill to leave her bed; when she returns to the scene of her torture, she sees the place is a ruin. In her distress, she wisely goes to her sister, who is reliably supportive and they end up living together with their other sister and the black dogs. Then one day a group of guests arrive under false pretences, break all the rules and one of them ends up being a caliph. Life is weird.
The caliph has all this written down. For posterity.
Which brings us to night nineteen, as he decides what he should do to fix matters. The storyteller has a lock of the snake girl’s hair; if it is burned, she will come. The caliph performs the summoning and the lady in question appears with a crash of thunder. Her need for vengeance sated, she turns the dogs back into women – then, because she’s magic and knows All the Things, she reveals the identity of the widow’s vile husband. He’s none other than the caliph’s own son. Being her husband, and the law being stupid, he had the right to do everything he did.
I am very angry and about to get angrier.
The caliph calls forth his son. Instead of putting the bastard in prison or banishing him or doing anything even remotely satisfactory, he RENEWS THE MARRIAGE CONTRACT, rebuilds the house and throws lots of money at both halves of the couple, like that’s ever stopped abuse. He then arranges for the storyteller and her recently re-humaned sisters to each marry a dervish, because apparently he’s super into group weddings, and appoints each dervish as a chamberlain of his court. After that he marries the last sister left himself. So, to summarise – all the women lose their autonomy, an abusive relationship is actively encouraged and the only person who escapes the patriarchy inact is a creepy snake lady who’s a big fan of torture. Happy ending? Not bloody likely.
My only consolation is this: the sisters are tough, most of them have escaped awful marriages before, and they have a useful (if terrifying) ally. Maybe they’ll be okay.
Maybe Ja’far will help them run away.
Maybe they will all locate the palace of free love princesses and live in peace forever.
I want these things to happen.
What we know happens is that Sharazad wraps up this story, her second arc so far, and immediately begins a new story. I’m sure she’s hoping, hard as she can, for a happy ending of her own. Join me next week when the caliph discovers a murder and Ja’far turns detective.