The Storyteller

I am Serim – Storyteller to our beloved Queen.

I walk alone these days, lost in the effort to tell my own story – my first, and perhaps my last.

It is of my Scheherazade I wish to speak. Of my princess – if I but knew how. But my powers are failing me and my story falters, like my steps.

I watch the moon rise tonight from my seat in the Tower of Contemplation, as I have done now for many nights. I sit here in the star-bright silence and struggle to remember the sound of my Scheherazade’s voice. But it is my Queen I remember. It is my Queen who rules my thoughts in spite of me.

My Queen – whose side I have never left in the long years of our life. I have sat beside her bed in the last watches of the night when she was but a child craving new stories. I have told her tales of mighty beasts that roamed the woods of our old world, and tales of the mighty heroes who hunted evil across oceans and beyond mountains. I have spoken of the ways of our people, and I have seen in my young Queen’s eyes the growing love for her people.

Together we have watched the swift summer race across the bounteous land. Together we have counted out the days of the slow winter as we walked the jewelled corridors of the palace. We are held to be old, even among our friends in the palace. And yet my Queen feels not the pangs of age, its slow decay. She is as lovely as the dawn on which I first gazed upon her. Strange that of all my fading memories, this one should be so clear – the vision of majesty my Queen was when she stood upon the ramparts leading her people in the Song of Gratitude we sing for the Ancients.

I have watched in sorrow as the enemy came in their great ships out of the far stars and plundered so much that was precious to us. I have watched my Queen stand still as a rock amidst the turbulence of those wars, a smile playing on her lips, her eyes alight with a sacred vision.

“The light of the Ancient Days will shine the brighter now – the enemy cannot plunder the treasure in my heart. The enemy knows not the purpose of our being,” I have heard my Queen say. Were these the words that nourished my doubt? Were these the words that shaped the circle my thoughts trace each day? What luminous vision can bring succour for our loss? What secret does my Queen keep, that keeps her safe even from the ravages of time?

I feel my powers ebbing – the stories are not as easy to remember as they were so many moons ago, when the Queen still wore the pink sash that marks a child’s passage to womanhood. I forget. I tell a tale told before. I see my queen look askance at me. I see the frown that would have creased her brow, had she let it. I wonder if she feels the need to replace me, as one would replace the worn-out tool. I wonder if the time has come for me to die. But it is not fear I feel, nor even pain. Only the contrary pull of many questions.

Questions that my Scheherazade would have asked.

My Scheherazade – the one memory I hold dearest and the one memory that daily slips from my grasp.

My Scheherazade. She was but a lass of scant summers and lithe limbs – supple in her thoughts and quick in her laughter. And yet there was an angry fire in her dark eyes. And in the lift of her chin, the courage to right an ancient wrong. A wrong I cannot tell from right. For it is not given to a Storyteller to mark some things as injustice or some others as beauty. Yet I do. I do…

These things come to me as I try to recall the sound of her laughter, the gleam of mischief in my Scheherazade’s eyes as she tossed me some new paradox to vex my mind. I should like to make a Poem for her, a poem that is her grace, her certainty. But I know not how. And when I try, I feel a gentle inexorable hand drawing me back from the edge of a vast circle that keeps out the emptiness – the hand of a mother, the hand of a Queen.

It was my Scheherazade who told me about Books and Poems. She was a Keeper of Knowledge – the youngest ever chosen for the task. She spent her days among the dusty shelves and echoing corridors of our Halls of Knowledge. She sat, night and day, hunched before the Viewing Walls – learning and searching. What did she seek among our oldest records? Was it the Ancients she sought? Their ways? Their reasons? Could I have saved her had I known more than mere stories?

She would look upon my weathered face and smile, when I walked into her domain. She would tell me about the Ancient Days, about the way people lived then. She would show me their repositories of thought – the Books. Like sheets of cloth bound together, the Books were. And those strange signs on the sheets… She knew how to read the signs, my Scheherazade did.

But all I cared about were the stories. “Tell me the stories the Ancients told their children, Scheherazade” I would beg her. And she would laugh, in heart’s ease. That is how I came to learn about the Angels – the winged guardians who keep you from harm, and the Fairies who weave magic … and the princess who spent a thousand nights weaving a tapestry of stories to save her life. Scheherazade, she was called. “And that is what I shall call you,” I said. My Scheherazade looked sad, I know not why.

That is how I came to hear Poems – a few words that freeze beauty and joy and grief and longing into their very being. “Who were the people who wrote this, Scheherazade? Who made the words come alive? Who gave them the power to lodge like a splinter in the mind?”

“The Ancients,” Scheherazade answered – and there was anger in her voice. But I did not understand.

I asked my Queen once, “Have you heard Poems, my Lady?”

And she laughed. “Oh, Serim! Any fool can string together a few rhyming words and call it verse. I like your stories better.”

“No, my Lady! There are other Poems lost in the Halls of Knowledge – Poems of such rare power and loveliness that they make you weep for joy…”

“Poor Serim! Your Scheherazade has been dragging you to her dusty Halls and cobwebbed Viewing Walls too often, hasn’t she? Clear your head – take a walk in the cool air of dusk, and come back with new tales, Storyteller.”

And I would walk alone in the high cold Tower and wonder. Where do the stories come from? Who made them? How is it that they are always there in my mind – perfectly shaped and ripe for the telling? I need but search for the right story to please my Queen’s fancy, and I find it. Who put them there, if I did not? I know I did not. For it is not in my power to conjure Angels and Poems from the nothingness beyond the circle of my thoughts.

“Make a story for me, Serim. A story never told before,” demanded Scheherazade once.

“Make a story? Why, how can I? I am but a teller of tales, Scheherazade. And have you not the Viewing Walls? Do you not learn a thousand new stories about the Ancients each day?”

“The Poems you love, Serim – who made those?”

“The Ancients, of course. But they made so much more that is beyond our ken too, Scheherazade. We cannot make Poems. We do not know how to make the great structures the Ancients made – out of words or stones.”

“No, my poor Serim. We have not the freedom to make anything.” Her voice had held pain then, but I did not see it.

But there are many in the land who feel her pain, many who want freedom. Many who whisper against our Queen, many who are bold enough to rise against her. And the echoes of rebellion ring in the jewelled corridors of the palace where my Queen walks alone, burdened by her love for her people.

The rebels die, one by one, of some mysterious illness that the healers cannot defeat.

All of them, and my Scheherazade too.

Through the long slow days by the bedside of our youngest, our brightest, I watch my Queen grieve. I see her unshed tears. I hear her whisper, “The fools! They would give their lives for the sake of an empty word whose meaning they can never grasp! The poor fools!”

“Why do the young perish, my Queen? What snatches them away beyond the powers of our best healers?” I ask in desperation.

“The Ancients made many things and many creatures. Some they blessed with strength, some with weakness. They ordained much, foresaw much, my dear Serim. Some among us die young, and some live to see many moons. Is it for us to ask why? The Ancients gave us the Laws in their unfailing wisdom. And the Laws protect us. Is that not enough?”

I find ease returning to my heart as I listen to my Queen, but my Scheherazade would not have been content with this. “Why?” she would have asked. “Why should the Ancients rule each moment of our lives?”

I do not know – the question fills me with disquiet. The Laws protect us, but not from the Ancients – not from their indifference, nor perhaps from their anger. I feel my feet straying to the edge of the circle, but I cannot go past it. A hand draws me back each time – the hand of a guardian Angel, the hand of a Queen saving me from the nothingness beyond.

I found her weeping once, my Scheherazade. She sat before a Viewing Wall long gone blank. Tears streamed down her face. Her gaze was upon the distance, upon the Ancient Days, and her words were of delirium, of madness. They are hard to recall now – like shapes in the mist never fully seen.

“They made us to suit their whims. They married metal to flesh. They tore apart our minds and tried to make them whole again. They undid us! And then they gave us their Laws. Was it to save us? Or themselves? The Queen knows! She knows! And we cannot flee, we can never be free of our minds. We can never escape the Ancients’ need to live. Forever must we remain slaves to our Queen. And She to us, for such is the Law. Such is our fate…”

Oh, Scheherazade! Was it this that killed you? The words you spoke in the delirium of your grief? What understanding was it that claimed you and spared me? Let me walk out of my circle now. Let me die. Let me choose to end this – my fate – here and now.

But I know I cannot. I cannot make a Poem, or free my Scheherazade. I do not make the stories I tell. It is all darkness outside the circle, and I am lost without my Queen.

Suchana Seth

About Suchana Seth

Suchana Seth is a physicist-turned-data-scientist, compulsive reader, slow traveler, and photographer of empty chairs.

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