“A Tale Unwoven” by David Monteith

Every night for the last ninety-nine nights a story had saved her life. She was Shahrazad, wife and slave to King Shahryar. Each night she told a tale of adventure, or intrigue, or love to the king. At the end of each story she made sure to leave some mystery unsolved, some question unanswered. By doing so she hoped the King’s curiosity would get the better of his wrath. So far it had. His anger and jealousy had ended the lives of hundreds of wives before her. Fear that she would suffer the same fate filled her days, but she hid her fear when she entered his chambers every night. For ninety-nine nights her stories had captivated him, and he’d allowed her to live, but she felt his patience wearing thin.

After the telling of her one hundredth story Shahrazad did something she’d never done before. As she was leaving the king’s chambers, she stopped at what she knew to be his favorite tapestry. It hung on the wall, set apart from the other decorations. It was the least ornate piece in the room. Simple lines and flat colors defined a homely rug in a palace filled with golden things. A loose thread hung from one corner. 

Shahrazad looked for a moment at the thread and then tugged at it lightly. She paused, perhaps waiting for a reaction, then she slowly, firmly pulled at the thread until she’d freed a length of it as long as her arm. She let it dangle to the floor and left the room without looking back.

The next night she followed her familiar pattern of telling the king a story and, as she was leaving, she again freed more of the loose thread before leaving without looking back. On the third night of thread pulling, King Shahryar said, “My wife, why do you destroy my prized tapestry?” His curiosity tinged with irritation.

“That is a story for another night,” she replied, leaving without a glance.

Night after night Shahrazad continued telling the stories of Sinbad, and Ali Baba, and magical creatures.  And night after night she continued the slow unraveling of the carpet on the wall. She commanded the servants to bring her a polished brass urn in which she placed the pile of thread as it grew larger. Anytime the king questioned her, he was answered with the same reply.

“That is a story for another night.”

She could feel anger and curiosity competing inside him. Several times she wondered if she’d gone too far. If he’d finally lost his patience, she would certainly lose her head. When she felt the danger rising, she wielded words in her defense. Her stories explored unheard of places and took more unexpected twists.

After many such nights, Shahrazad paused at the urn after entering the room rather than taking her place beside the king for his evening story. The tapestry was now less a carpet than a pile of unruly string. The king watched as she wordlessly and gently pulled and pulled at the thread. Never frantic, never hurried, she silently pulled. And then she left. For the first time in almost two hundred nights she left without telling a tale.

She woke the next morning wondering. For so many months her life each day depended on her story of the night before.

The king’s executioner did not come. 

That night she returned to his chambers and again she pulled at the thread and left without telling a tale. Again, she woke the following morning wondering. And again, the king’s executioner did not come.

After the third night of unraveling, with all but one edge of the tapestry now piled in the urn, Shahrazad spoke once more. 

“It is the fate of all things to be unmade,” she said.

“It was my favorite tapestry,” said the king, his voice thick with restraint.

“It was,” she replied. “And now it is only the story you tell of it that will allow it to live on. As it is with all things.” 

She believed by now that the king would not harm her, so she issued a gentle command.

“Tell me the tale of that tapestry.”

The king stared at Shahrazad giving no sign of his thoughts regarding her fate. She could feel him wrestling with his own temper. The muscles of his jaw flexed, and his nostrils flared. 

When he opened his mouth, she feared he’d call for the axe. Instead, he began a tale about a merchant from another land who’d traded him the rug for a lamp and some oil. There was no artfulness to his story, but the king talked about feeling connected to faraway places when he stared at the woven patterns. He loved it for its humble beginnings and the path he imagined it taking to his palace. By the time his story was complete, his tone and manner had softened.

When he was finished Shahrazad laid her head on his chest and let silence blanket them. “Tomorrow,” she said softly, “I will tell you a story again, a story about a boy named Ala al-Din and his wonderful lamp.”

David Monteith is a former high school teacher, a part time journalist, a dog sitter, a facilitator, and a yoga practitioner. He draws inspiration from all of these for a variety of fiction stories. Haiku and flash fiction appeal to him for similar reasons: the liberating challenge of constraints. 

2 thoughts on ““A Tale Unwoven” by David Monteith

  1. I really, really enjoyed this one. A movingly bittersweet take on the frame story of the 1001 Nights, and an excellent commentary on the topic of storytelling in general.

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