Scheherazade - I - Ali Baba
Ali, a Persian wood monger, gathered branches from the deserted cliffside and sang out into the desert night. His meager inheritance long exhausted, Ali spent his evenings laboring to support a wife and young daughter through the sale of kindling scraps at market.
Despite his poverty and modest trade, Ali was a man both wise and clever, and he sang out as much for the elevation of his own spirits as to bring his donkeys uplift from their master’s good cheer.
But now, in an instant, in the blue-green flash of a moonlit scimitar blade, everything changed. Ali found himself taking refuge, wild-eyed, on the straining upper limb of an olive tree. Desperate to remain undetected, he drowned his panicked breathing into the crook of his arm.
I am five.
And because I am five, I am facing the same peril in the same olive tree as Ali Baba. I adjust myself from my prone position on the corner of my bed so that I can maneuver upright and drown my own panicked breath into the crook of my arm.
My mother looks up from her reading at the commotion at the foot of the bed. My bedtime story reader never settles into a book without first covering herself in a geological pile of blankets. She carefully sets the broken sections of her tattered childhood copy of The Arabian Nights onto the uppermost quilt. So as not to disturb the mood or the text, she silently demonstrates how to “drown your panicked breath into the crook of your arm.” I try a second time, watching her response closely. She nods with silent, but serious approval. We are of one mind on this detail and its significance.
My mother looks back down from over her glasses. She reassembles the various pieces of our storybook world. We return to the tree, situated over Ali’s shoulder to the right of the white roll of his turban. A slivery fraction of terrified eye flashes as he casts his glance back-and-forth at the scene unfolding below. The rough bark of the olive tree cuts into our palms and legs.
The thieves are forty in number.
We count them, torch by torch, as their horses round the crumbling precipice of a cliff wall, and they come to a restive halt, dismounting below the olive tree. Flaming black wads of oilcloth at the end of their torches rend and roil the air beneath us. We feel the flashing heat of the flames on our faces. These highwaymen gather below us, scheming, drawing their dark cloaks tight around themselves, but not before flashing golden buckles, tendon-slicing knives, and drawstring purses of red rubies.
My mother monitors my response and continues.
Why if a brigand was distracted from his dark machinations and looked up to the soft beauty of Allah’s starry firmament, that brigand would witness the sharp crescent moon slide out from the milky desert clouds as surely as the deathly poniard slides from its sheath!
Were he to look to the heavens in a moment of tender-hearted weakness, he would catch sight of the three of us in our perch as exposed and helpless as newborn sparrows. Surely that brigand would laugh and spill our blood! But they will not look! These men do not hunger for the comfort and solace of a starry night!
Nor do they think on the besieged caravan that evening, nor the cries of its maidens, nor the frantic wild-eyed stallions. They think not on the wasting tent embers that lie smoldering yet beneath these selfsame heavens.
These men think of treasure and spoils!
My mother clears her throat and adjusts her blankets. She is not suitably comfortable for the section we both know approaches. She adjusts her angle from window-facing to door-facing, shifting from a reddening, sore elbow to a freshly recycled one. Her movements trigger a chain reaction, and I, too, must find a new position on my corner plot.
The bed is in full uproar. Blanket-kneed mountains rise and fall, sedimentary shifts give way, books and glass cases slide, pillows topple and compress. Entire literary geologic ages pass as the two of us find a comfortable reading position as quickly as possible.
My new angle on the bed places me within reach of my mother’s outstretched hand. Her long fingers search for a tender spot at the nape of my neck. She fiddles with my hair and lightly draws her nails against my skin. My head flops to the bed. My mouth parts and my eyes close. Glittery chills race along my back.
The captain, carrying burlap saddlebags laden with the ravaged caravan’s gold and silver, approaches the mute granite face of the cliffside.
“Open Sesame,” the swarthy, hawk-eyed captain cries out.
And the great wall of rock opens of itself.
“The rock opens of itself,” says my mother with significance. I’m aware there is a lesson here: she is reading with the reflective, reverential cadence of a pastor approaching his main point, his holy ground.
“The rock opens of itself,” she says again.
She parcels out each syllable this time. She is not honoring the story now, but its language, and through my mother’s repetition and my own submission, I am vulnerable to the love of words, of her words, of the sound of her words, of their curious mixture. I am as supple as a tiger cub in its mother’s mouth.
My mother releases her fingertips from my neck. Her hand retreats to the pages of the storybook. She adopts a fresh cadence and tone, shifting from aria to recitativo.
The tigress releases her cub and turns away. The cub must follow the fine trail of language on its own.
The thieves have departed. Ali Baba descends from his fugitive’s perch and lands on the ground in a crouch. His knees bulge out from his thin legs. He flicks shocks of coal-black hair out of his eyes and tucks them beneath his white, moonlit turban.
Wringing his hands before him, he utters the incantation of Open Sesame, and once again the stone door rumbles free. Ali Baba makes his way into the cave and hands-to-head falls on his knees marveling at the blessings shining upon him and upon his descendants.
The two of us look down on righteous Ali Baba from our storybook summit, and then we follow him. We watch our poor wood monger fling open chest after golden chest in his cave of treasures. His hands tremble before him as he races from end to end, his heart bursting from the sight of camel loads of silk and brocades, Persian carpets, jewels of red and blue and green, earthen vessels of ashrafis, and all manners of sparkling wealth from soil to ceiling.
We watch Ali Baba tear away bundles of dry sticks from his donkeys and replace their meager load with gold and silver bullion. We hear the solitary joy of his song in the night and the eruption of his laughter. He looks to the starry firmament and closes his eyes.
His starlit treasure is ours.
It is mine.
It is mine still.
With his donkeys fully loaded and daybreak approaching swiftly, Ali turns to look back at the cave entrance. He holds his torch high. He takes a last look at the magnificence of his improbable fortune, and through the channel of my mother’s voice, a voice crackling with adventure and the confidence of a king, Ali Baba cries out, “Close Sesame!”
My mother’s arm waves through the air over the bed to demonstrate Ali’s last gesture, a faraway goodbye, but her eyes remain fixed on the page. Ali’s incantation echos back from the empty cave as the great stone door rumbles shut, and a final eclipsed slice of torchlight races across the cave walls.
The following night, and the night after, and again and again and again, the tales of Scheherazade unspool, endlessly it would seem: tales of Ali’s shrewd wife, her clever maidservant, the wax that traps a golden coin, the thieves thwarted, boiled alive in vessels of cunning.
I look directly at my mother, and she looks directly at me.
And the door closes of itself.
And the treasure is gone.
And Ali Baba is gone.
And now my mother is Gone.
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Feel something. Twice a week.