[Published in Barzakh: https://www.barzakhmag.net/spring-2021-prose/2021/6/2/4dg2izfildu5c9j1lxhig2vmxdhyh2-krc62-ftkyn]
My dear Aziz, I am going to tell you a fairy tale tonight. It is called The Blue-Haired Woman. You should be grateful, not many husbands are aware of this story. You may know of another version that is called Bluebeard.
The one about the man whose beard is blue and who lives in a big castle. The one who marries a different virgin every year and who kills each of them and keeps their corpses in a locked room. I will not be telling you about the latest of his conquests or what he ends up doing to her; I will rather tell you of the woman with the blue hair.
So keep lying still and in pain and imagine this: a caravanserai in the midst of an endless yellow landscape. A caravanserai in the middle of nowhere, totally alone. This ancient building is run by The Blue-Haired Woman, and she runs it not on money but on fairy tales.
The travelers are surprised by this. “What a crazy inn keeper!” they say. “Not only does she have blue hair, she also shuns money!” But that is the way it is. Most people fill their stomachs with soup and bread and coffee and wine, and The Blue-Haired Woman, she fills her stomach with stories. She is greedy for them. She hunts for them. So every night, when the guests retreat to their chambers, she comes knocking on their doors carrying her lantern and demands that they pay up.
At first, the visitors are confident; they have flow. But soon they falter. They lose direction and they lose their words. The characters seem inauthentic; the plot does not thicken. The story falls flat.
You know where my fairy tale is headed, my dear Aziz. The guests disappoint The Blue-Haired Woman over and over. They tell her false stories, and so she kills them.
In the middle of nowhere, behind the caravanserai, there is a graveyard where broken stemmed flowers grow throughout all seasons.
Do you understand me, dear husband?
Are you scared yet?
You have been lying still for days. Once in a while your eyes flicker, or your hands twitch, sometimes you talk in your sleep or ask for a sip of water. It started with a fever, with aches and pains and a deep, persistent cough.
Who would have believed it had they told us of a sickness that would spread, that would cover the whole of the world and all of Istanbul—which is sometimes bigger than the world. That the restaurants and schools would close, that we would walk around in masks and be scared of being touched, that we would be prisoners in our own homes. You certainly did not believe it. You always think you know better, my dear Aziz, and this has not served you well.
But there is no other option now; you must listen to me. You must admit that you have no resources other than me. We are at a time now where I set all the rules.
And my first rule is that I be your Scheherazade, dear husband. You know, the woman who kept telling stories night after night for one thousand and one nights in order to appease her husband Shahryar who would have otherwise killed all the virgins in the land. Just like the man with the blue beard.
Scheherazade is in Istanbul right now, Aziz, in this drab two-bedroom apartment, which I have refused to clean once you lost the ability to order me around. So here we sit, with oily hair and unwashed armpits, dirt falling like fairy dust all around us.
But nevertheless, I have dressed up for you. I have worn the red dress you had banned me from wearing. The one you deemed indecent and cut holes in once Latif was born. Yes, my breasts are out in the open now, like the goddesses in archaeology museums, and I am chewing mastic and have rosary beads in my hands, and you can do nothing about any of it.
Don’t you dare tell me that I know nothing of fairy tales. I collected these stories with my bare hands. I built them from clay. And I will tell you true accounts of past diseases that spread like wildfire. After all, history does nothing but repeat itself.
Once upon a time there was a woman called Troffea, in a faraway place called Strasbourg, at a distant corner of the 16th century. Frau Troffea lived in a farmhouse with her family. Every morning she got up, kneaded the dough, placed it in the oven, lit the stove, milked the cows, prepared the meals, cleaned, cooked, dressed, and fed her children. She had given birth to ten of them; five had died. Three shortly after birth, two from hunger and the cold. Her breasts were sagging and tender from so much loss. Troffea’s life was so devoid of love and hope that she couldn’t dream up a romance even if she tried.
As the years rolled into one, on a night like any other, there rose a Wolf Moon in the sky. According to the astrologers it would change everything. Troffea did not see it coming. But the moment the moon appeared full and silky at the window of the cottage, her womb was pulled. This is what the luminary does: it pulls the sea and the insides of women.
So she got out of bed. In the deep dark of the house, as her husband and five children lay asleep, she began a dance her feet had never known. For minutes on end. And then, finding the cottage too small, she pulled open the door and threw herself to the fields covered with hoarfrost. Her feet barren, like the people of old and witches and the mad, reaching for the sky as if it were possible to touch it. And this was such a pretty feeling that she did not know how to name it, because she had never felt it before, this freedom that made her aware of the blood running through her veins.
Eventually her husband and children woke up to a house freezing cold without the smell of bread from the oven, without a table set. And they began looking for the missing piece and found her in the wet dark, dancing. Troffea’s children began to laugh. Her husband pushed her—slapped and beat her, even cut her hair—but could not stop her. Then the town’s mad-cap tied a red shawl around her neck and danced alongside Troffea, and then the other women joined, and by the time the sun was high up in the sky there were dozens of them.
Don’t ask me what happened in the end, dear husband. No need to ask questions to which you know the answers.
Those women kept dancing until they died.
It is quite late now. It is the time you would normally penetrate me without permission. At the beginning, my womb was a deep, mellow, wine-colored cave. Do you remember, Aziz? Inside it, there were shy little candles flickering. There were wild eyed deer and doves. There were puddles of water from which they quenched their thirst. But you distorted that cave. It is no longer gentle. It is no longer a sanctuary. My womb is a dark well now, and it scares even me. I want no part of it, I don’t want to carry it; I would destroy it if I had the chance.
Do you know what I think of often, my dear? The winter we spent in Troffea’s city. We were walking by the water, and you slipped on the ice and fell, and I couldn’t help but laugh; that was the night you slapped me for the first time.
I think also of the night when you first choked me so hard that I fainted, and when I came to, bewildered, you acted as if nothing at all had happened, as if I had woken from a nap. If I had not had to cover up the bruises for a week, I may have thought that I had gone crazy.
Do you remember all this or are the memories slipping through your fingers one by one? The memories and all your achievements to date and all your rules? Do you feel that each door you try is firmly locked, that there is no escape from this?
This powerless state you are in; I understand it well. You mocked me for reading those dusty books but in them I found a story that fits you like a glove:
Between 1915 and 1926, almost five million people fell into a strange sleep. First they got a fever, then sore throats, and then their whole worlds slowed down. For hours and months and years, they became prisoners in their own bodies, observers unable to act.
And then a miracle drug woke them up momentarily. They ate, they saw their loved ones, they talked, they walked. But most froze in their places soon again. Before losing all control of their limbs, they said, “But you see, I am walking. It is just that the room keeps expanding, so I never make progress.”
Is it like that for you too, my dear? Despite years of struggling, are you now back where you had started? Are you still dependent on a woman who shoves your body this way and that?
Dear husband, I had another pandemic story prepared for you, but our time is running out. Your face is as gray as the misty dawn outside our windows. Still, I can’t help but summarize this fairy tale about a young African girl in a missionary school who began to laugh one day out of the blue and could not stop, and then this laughter spread to other students and then to other villages, and you could canoe on this one river in Tanganyika around which all these settlements had been built and hear nothing but laughter and shrieks for miles on end.
Yes, I would like you to think of those little girls who are laughing at everything and everyone around them. I want you to have that image stuck in your head.
But I see that you are confused. You can’t tell where you are anymore. Let me tell you.
You are in front of a bridge. Those wild eyed deer, and those doves that used to live inside me, they are encircling you now. You fear their presence. They are both vulnerable and strong, and you hate this; you do not understand.
Do you remember the trembling candles within me? I have put them on the railings of the bridge. And with each step you take, another flame goes out. You are walking towards some dark place. You are about to fall into a deep well, my dear Aziz.
To be frank, most people have misunderstood Scheherazade. One thousand and one nights was her first experiment. Her first and patient storytelling. A collaboration between her and her sister to appease a man who was dangerous.
Poor Scheherazade, diligent Scheherazade, devoted Scheherazade, kind Scheherazade.
But I am her other face. Scheherazade told her stories to keep people alive; I tell mine to bid you farewell, to keep you drunk between story and sleep until you disappear altogether.
As you always said, dear husband, patience is the greatest virtue. And the tides, they always turn.