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by Alex Shvartsman
You don’t know the entire story.
The fable has some of it right. There was a young woman named Scheherazade, and she lived in a dark age. The Persian tyrant king took a virgin to his bed every night, and then had her beheaded in the morning. Scheherazade was a vizier’s daughter, growing up at court and blossoming into a beauty. At a time when most people couldn’t read Scheherazade was a student of history and art, and a collector of books. She understood the nature of men and feared that her father’s position wouldn’t protect her for long.
To her family’s dismay, Scheherazade volunteered to become the king’s next consort. She begged the king only to let her tell him a story, as they lay in bed, afterward. Bemused by her audacity, the king had agreed. Armed with her knowledge of folk tales and history, Scheherazade spun a saga of heroes and villains, enchantment and excitement. And as the dawn was breaking, she got to the most interesting part. Fascinated by the story, the king had spared her life so that she could finish it the following evening.
Night after night, Scheherazade would finish one story and start telling another, always managing to pause on a cliffhanger at dawn. You may have heard that she kept this up for a thousand and one nights before she finally had no more stories to tell, that the king was in love with her by then, and made her his queen. That isn’t what happened. In fact, she never ran out of stories at all.
The king did fall in love with her, and that did not take nearly so long as a thousand nights. Her life was no longer in danger after merely a hundred stories, once the king learned that she was with child. He loved her well enough, but cherished her stories more. He constantly demanded new tales, pushing her considerable talent to its limit. He no longer cared to hunt or to feast, and left the affairs of state to his ministers and advisers. He lost weight and grew ill, and died having heard a few short of nine hundred stories.
Scheherazade was no longer forced to invent new stories. She should have been relieved to finally let her imagination take a break. Instead she found that the stress of her situation, the pressure she had lived under for two and a half years, had broken something within her. She realized she could not stop.
Her levels of anxiety rose steadily until her heart beat so wildly it almost escaped from her chest, and she was overcome with nausea. She needed to tell her stories as much as she needed to breathe. The court physicians recognized her mental affliction as one usually manifested in an irresistible desire to perform the same task over and over again. They had no remedy, and suggested giving in to the compulsion as the only means of managing it.
Every evening a select audience was invited to the palace. As Scheherazade began to tell a new story, a wave of calm washed over her, her confidence returned, and her smooth voice flowed like the Euphrates.
The legend of the storyteller queen had spread across the world. Scholars and adventurers, heroes and philosophers, traveled to Persia to hear her tales. Even the elder pagan gods, whose power had not yet entirely waned, were taking notice. Zeus himself, pathologically unable to avoid meddling in any scenario that involved a beautiful woman, arrived at the palace. Masquerading as an old poet he listened to her spin a yarn, but it was her own tragic saga of being blessed with great talent and cursed to constantly use it that appealed to his divine sensitivity. And so, for the first time in millennia, Zeus elevated a mortal. Scheherazade became the tenth muse.
To this day she walks among us, eternal and tireless, telling stories. She appears to William the playwright as he labors on another tragedy to present at Globe Theater. She is there as twelve-year-old Billy inexpertly tries to write his first adventure novel, three and a half pages long. She visits the talented, the hacks, and everyone in between.
You did not know this story. Neither did I, until she showed up here and whispered it, urgently, into my ear. Then she was gone, just as quickly, to find her next audience.
Alex Shvartsman is a writer and game designer. His adventures so far have included traveling to over 30 countries, playing a card game for a living, and building a successful business. Alex resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and son. Alex also edits Unidentified Funny Objects—an annual anthology series of humorous science fiction and fantasy short stories.
Since 2010, Alex has sold more than 50 short stories to a variety of magazines and anthologies. His fiction has appeared in such venues as the Journal of Nature, Daily Science Fiction, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Galaxy’s Edge, and many others. Click here for the complete bibliography, or visit his website at alexshvartsman.com.