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there's a trick with a knife (i'm learning to do)

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This isn’t how it was supposed to go, Anna wants to say, but one doesn’t question the logic of dreams.

‘Do you know what my name means?’ her dream-visitor asks, twirling a little silver knife in her hand. There are no bracelets on her wrists, no jewellery adorning her fingers, despite the portrayals that Hollywood has impressed upon Anna's imagination. She has hands that are not unlike Anna’s own, worn with menial tasks, fingers curled slightly inward, as though clasping an invisible object.

Anna shakes her head. ‘I always thought it was a very pretty name,’ she offers, wincing at her own ingenuousness and disregard.

Scheherazade smiles. ‘Sheher for ‘place’ and azaad meaning ‘free’,’ she says. ‘Freedom is hard-won, Anna Deavere Smith. One is not born into it, not even in a country such as yours. When I left the place I was born in, the only thing I took away with me was the freedom I had earned.’

‘You, Anna,’ she continues, moving around to Anna’s side of the desk, ‘are nothing but a fraud. Do you concede to that?’

‘How?’ Anna struggles briefly to move, but she’s pinned to her chair, as though by invisible bonds. ‘How am I a fraud?’

‘You know nothing of what you wish to write,’ Scheherazade snaps, leaning forward, a palm flat on the sheaf of papers on the desk, her face inches from Anna’s. ‘You perform. In front of your genteel audience. People who dress up for an evening at the theatre.’ She laughs. ‘And you think we’re alike because I performed to save my life. You perform for entertainment.’

‘What if,’ Anna says, shifting in her chair. She pauses for a bit, letting the question hang in the air between them, complete in itself. ‘What if that is the only kind of performance this world allows? This isn’t your world anymore. I want to bring you back to life. I want to tell your story because—’

‘You want to use me.’

Anna shrugs. ‘Yes. Yes, I suppose I do. You know, darling, at your age, you should be flattered at any attention you get.’

Scheherazade ignores her. ‘I once met a writer who talked to me about stories after my time, speaking a language I didn't know when I was alive. She talked about strange, magical things, and I let her live. She was just so entertaining.’ She draws the flat of her blade over Anna’s temple, trails it down her cheek. ‘You like that word, don’t you? Entertainment.’

‘I take it you don’t.’

‘There was another. A slave. There were chains around her hands and feet that she pulled and strained against when she talked, her hair a mass of tiny beaded braids, her voice hoarse, as if from screaming. I know you, she said to me. I met you in a book, didn’t I? I looked at her face and it was like looking into a mirror, my reflection fuzzy around the edges.’ She trails her fingertip over the blade of her knife.

‘You,’ Anna says, ‘are certifiably crazy. One hundred fucking per cent.’

Scheherazade smiles. ‘You like it.’

‘Never said I didn’t.’

‘What is it you want of me, Anna Smith? Why summon me to subject me to your whims? Why not create a character of your own?’

‘I don’t know,’ Anna says, helpless. ‘You’re a storyteller too. Surely you understand how this works. You don’t choose the story. The story chooses you.’

‘You think you’re so wise, yet your words lack conviction. Whose line is that, Anna Smith? It’s not your own. Did you steal it from some foremother?’

‘No one’s original,’ Anna says, dismissive, suddenly on familiar ground. If she tries hard enough, she can imagine she’s in a classroom, finding new ways to disguise platitudes as she talks, her words falling on uncaring ears. ‘Originality is not worth the effort. Or didn’t you know that?’

‘So much despair,’ Scheherazade says, sadness seeping into her tone as she looks down at Anna.

Anna lifts a shoulder. ‘Hey, it’s a living. Don’t diss it till you’ve tried it.’

‘Is there not a shred of inventiveness in you? Something you can truly call your own?’ Scheherazade perches at the edge of the desk, suddenly girlish, suddenly curious, no trace of malice in her eyes.

‘Why ask a question,’ Anna says, suddenly weary, ‘when you already think you know the answer?’

The girl in front of her—she’s so much like a girl now, the storyteller before she was forced to learn her art—takes Anna by the shoulders, leaning forward to press her nose behind Anna’s earlobe and breathe deeply. ‘You smell like lies,’ she says conversationally. ‘Like you wouldn’t know a truth from a lie if your life depended on it.’

‘Show me, then,’ Anna says, reaching, pushing. ‘That’s why I need you. Show me.’

‘I am not yours to command.’ Scheherazade sweeps the papers off Anna’s desk in a grand gesture, pulling it off. Anna is impressed.

‘Give me your hand.’ Anna does, shivering in anticipation as her hand is clasped and brought down to the desk, laid flat along the polished wood, fingers spread and waiting. Another hand on top of hers, aligning their fingers, separating them in preparation.

‘Do you trust me?’ Scheherazade asks, raising the knife with her free hand.

‘Hell, no.’

Scheherazade smiles. ‘Do you know why your script needs diacritical marks? Because those who invented it lacked knowledge. Because they were arrogant enough to think that the only sounds in the universe were the ones they knew.’

‘Arrogance,’ Anna says, her breathing even, ‘is a word like a boomerang, don’t you think? You use it, you never get rid of it.’

‘Are you calling me arrogant?’ There’s a smile playing around Scheherazade’s lips again, her hand still pinning Anna’s to the desk. Without waiting for an answer, she lowers the knife, begins a steady tap tap tap on the wood between their fingers, her movements gradually picking up speed.

‘If I am,’ Anna says—they’re breathing together now, slow and even, counterpointing the gathering speed of the knife—‘it only reflects back on me, doesn’t it?’

I could learn how to do this, she thinks, looking down at their hands on the desk, her eyes too slow now to follow the rapid pattern that Scheherazade is carving between their fingers in fast-forward, a blur of sound that feels like a language Anna doesn’t know. I really could.