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Searching for Scheherazade

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When she is born, she is named Layla for her mother's skill and her father's devotion: the literary scholar and poet dedicating a thousand-plus nights to folklore and oral tradition and personal embellishment spun out by the one he loved best, the pile of tokens drawn from each tale accumulating each night. Long before she has uttered her first word, her parents have blanketed her in so many more, from the mundane "No" and "Here, eat this," to the more magical "I love you," and the powerful beginnings of "It is related, O King..." They proudly note how their voices soothe her, as though she were different from any other infant calmed by the sound of loved ones nearby.

When she is two, her favorite activity is watching her father plucking small talking animals and oddly colored plants from the rich scenes her mother paints with her stories. The stories are brief fantasies of her mother's, the tokens ephemeral and short-lived, unlike some still left over from her parents' long-ago courtship: an extremely withered fig from one of the oldest and most told tales, a scrap of cloth that should have long since disappeared were it not for her father's love of that story, a hairpin from a narrative passed on to Layla's mother from her mother and her mother before that. As Layla grows older, the shelf of tokens grows and changes, childhood favorites slowly fading as they are replaced by new interests, the quickly disappearing stones from her mother's imagination giving way to more solid artifacts from popular children's books and stories.

Her father picks up a bowl, thick ceramic already turned translucent. "The poems, at least, last longer."

Her mother shakes her head at him. "They only change more slowly," she says. "And I have never loved the works people canonize quite as much as I love my own little shapings."

Layla has no stake in the argument and attempts to shove an ivory soldier in her mouth before her father rescues it.

When she is four, Layla is telling stories of her own, nonsensical but distinguishable enough for her father to occasionally grab a wisp of cloud or a handful of fur. The bits never last long after Layla's voice stops; nevertheless, her mother proudly tells her grandmother of each and every one.

When she is six, Layla asks her parents why the tokens in her friends' houses change less and last longer. Her father gives her a complicated answer encompassing stories and variants and how some are told more often than others; he introduces her to the idea of shelf life but stops as her attention wanders. Her mother sits down with her, shows her a movie of something that is almost familiar but not. She recognizes some of the objects from her classmates, and when she reaches in to grab something, the coins are cold and heavy, sharp edges cutting into her palms. It's a surprise, and Layla reaches for the slightly faded medallion that is her current favorite, unable to trace the writing on it. She cries.

When she is eleven, Layla falls into her own story for the first time. At first, she is delighted by the ever-shifting landscapes and responsive buildings, but as her mother and father warned her, the ground begins to dissolve under her feet, and joy turns to fear. But before anything can happen, her father's solid hands are around her waist, and she is back in her house with her parents, grounded in more ways than one.

When she is thirteen, Layla reads a version of The Thousand and One Nights for the first time. Prior to this, she has always seen and heard the stories piecemeal, told by her mother during bedtimes and long car trips, her father pointing out small details like a peculiarly colored flower or a snagged bit of thread. When Layla tries reading parts of this version out loud, she stumbles on the "haply"'s and "verily"'s and isn't sure what to do with the assorted footnotes, some of which explain the obvious, others of which are just plain wrong. Everything she touches in the scene is incredibly solid, yet nothing feels quite right, and Layla slams the book shut and pushes it away from her in confusion.

That night, Layla tells her father about her strange encounter, and in turn, he talks about Richard Burton and Antoine Galland and Edward Lane and (thankfully) Muhsin Mahdi. She has known about story variants for as long as she can remember, but this is The Thousand and One Nights, which she has known and loved all her life. She cherishes the infinite variations and Scheherazade at the center always, the complex weave of stories and the small surprise of the characters deciding that some tales are not worth telling. It is her mother's voice and her father's hands, bits of everyday life and extraordinary wonders appearing and disappearing from the story-shelf, forever changing and always the same.

At school the next day, Layla finds that her classmates often have tokens from the odd version she read, the almost-correct details even more disconcerting in their wrongness. And so, she begins to tell them her own stories, the ones passed down from her mother's mother's mother to the ones she has imagined only five minutes ago, and while some of the children drift away, others stay and slowly dip fingers then hands into her worlds.

Gradually, a few of them start bringing tokens from home to pass around: Layla has some and knows others, marvels at the detail making what she thought was familiar new, wonders at the ones that are simply wrong in an undefinable way. Each one elicits a story, then another, then another, as voices chime in with tales fondly remembered, and their collection grows richer as many of the tokens from home are replaced by other bits fished out of story sessions. Perhaps it is somewhat less substantial than it used to be, but in the wavering lines and blurred forms of the pile are familiar textures and well-loved nooks and crannies.

But at night in her room, Layla tells the same tale over and over, every night a similar scene. Her parents wonder at her scratchy voice in the mornings, and though they must hear her through the door, they give her only time and understanding. As months pass by, she continues to do so, each night starting anew, each night stopping as it is still not quite right, not yet.

Then one night—probably the thousand and first, she thinks, but she hasn't been counting—it opens in front of her: an opulence of jewels and gold and silks; fantastic woven carpets and pots of hypnotized snakes; lithe, half-naked women with drowsy eyes and veils and burly eunuchs standing guard; spice and perfume redolent in the air. Layla disregards all caution and leaps in.

Up close, everything is even more beautiful, even more mysterious, even more enticing. Even so, Layla finds the scented air cloying and the wealth obscene, and worst are the figures who should be people but are instead mere decoration. She rolls her eyes and ignores the grandeur. Instead, she focuses on a small figure half buried in swords and magically-sealed jars.

She starts by heaving a sword off the pile, its hilt encrusted with enamel, its blade heavily detailed with inscriptions that aren't quite Arabic. She can barely move it. Then, brown hands with ink-stained fingers join hers in moving the debris, and when they are finished, the hands grasp her own. They are slightly wrinkled and rough and warm and dry. The woman looks up at Layla. She is older, less beautiful, and more ordinary than Layla had imagined, but if nothing else, Layla knows how imagination can be deceptive or true or both, knows how slippery stories can be in the mouths of different tellers. Then the woman smiles, and all at once something in her face, in her hands, in the lines of her body remind Layla of her mother and her grandmothers, of her friends and her favorite tales, and Layla smiles back.

"I'm sorry," Layla says. "I've never figured out how to get out without other people's help. I think we might be stuck?" She shifts her weight from one foot to another. The woman's presence makes this room even more unreal, and Layla wishes they could make it and its treasures and its gold disappear.

"No, I don't think so," says Scheherazade, and her voice sounds rusty from disuse. She coughs lightly and clears her throat. "I was stuck—you wouldn't believe the things people attribute to me. But we should be fine now."

Layla can only gaze mutely at her idol.

"Sister," Scheherazade begins, and Layla knows what her next words will be: "tell me a story."