The Singer and the Storyteller / Kwan-Ann Tan
CONTENT WARNING: violence.
Forgive me, for I do not have a talent for storytelling as she does.
They took me because I could sing and slaughter—two things, they thought, which could hold the Sultan’s interest for more than a single night. It made their job easier, they said, the guards who knocked on doors each day, dragging girls out of their homes to act as offerings at our ruler’s blood-stained feet.
At first, when we heard that the Sultan’s wife had been unfaithful, we cursed her name, and pitied the Sultan in a single breath. A week later, we were silent.
The beginning and end of the Sultan’s second marriage was swift and decisive, a hammer coming down like a means to an end. I don’t think the celebrations in the streets had even stopped when the first axe came down upon her smooth neck, the clean snip-snick of metal through flesh and bone.
And we all held our breath, mid-dance. Considering the precipice, and how far left we had to fall.
Sometimes in my nightmares, I remember catching a glimpse of her face through the palanquin veils, all bright and hopeful and shining, and then the scene melts, her face twisting into horror, screaming my name as her head falls, the smell of salt-blood choking my lungs. In other dreams, I picture my storyteller in place of her, and those are the worst dreams of all.
The girls kept going. One by one, they left their homes to be married off, and we saw their bodies leave in closed caskets, buried in a garden that never seemed to bloom, the flowers and trees wilting as if absorbing the bad blood the girls left behind, the bitterness and resentment at their deaths. A constant stream of imams spraying and sprinkling holy water over the sour dirt as if they could turn it sweet again. Deep down, we all knew that nothing but justice and revenge would lift that evil.
They started hoarding the girls, dragging them into the palace like shiny eggs stolen from nests, and the Sultan had long stopped marrying them.
We were taken at the same time, the storyteller and I. The other girls whispered to me that she went willingly, the Vizier’s daughter, whether running from another arranged marriage or maybe searching for something she thought she could only find in death. I can only remember how pale she was, how I wondered what weights she was carrying in her soul to bow her head so low.
She was taken before any of us, this girl that smelt like rosewater and powdered sugar, the girl that said nothing to anyone else, and her lips were constantly moving, reciting something to herself like all our lives depended on it. We thought that in this at least, all women were equal: everyone here would die by blade. So when she came back alive, after the first night, it was as if the floodgates had broken, that we had finally found respite in this oasis of bloodshed.
Her stories flowed back to us, night after night, and we all wondered how someone so small could contain so much magic. Every night we waited for bad news, and each dawning morning was a small victory as we watched her walk through the courtyard back to our rooms, unable to do anything but put all the strength in our hearts behind her.
After the first few weeks, the girls started going home, but a few of us remained, to take care of her each morning, to watch over her as she slept and to make sure that she ate, for she came back drained every night, sleeping like the dead until late afternoon, when the whole cycle would begin again. We made up a tightly-run little household, taking care of her every need without malice=. Each night, we bathed and perfumed her, wrapping her tightly in cooling silks and tying her hair back from her face. Plied her with honeyed drinks to soothe her throat, this voice that had saved a thousand girls, and then sent her off like sending a lover to war, watching her disappear into the Sultan’s bedchambers.
Once, I asked her if it got easier, knowing that she would be invited back the next night, if she was feeling any more certain about her position with the Sultan. She looked sad, and asked me if sticking your head in the mouth of a tiger every day made it any less certain that the tiger would not simply tear into your skull.
Finally, as dawn broke on the thousandth day, she told us that the Sultan planned to marry her. That she had finally run dry, the endless flow of stories stemmed by the fact that she could just remember no more of them, and the tiger had not bitten, because he wished to keep her as a pet. I gathered her into my arms to try and stop the trembling, pressed my burning mouth against her soft hair that smelled like peaches and fear.
I could take it no longer. I have always preferred slaughter over singing, and I had not done either since my arrival at the palace. My father had always wanted a son, so we bonded instead over our love for the shiny glint on the edge of a blade, and the elegance of different sword forms. I knew twenty-seven different ways to kill a man, but I only needed one to kill the Sultan.
On their wedding night, it was easy to drug the guards, who were already drunk on their own importance anyway—and I was singing when I slit his throat, the ruler of my country and my life. Singing a song my mother taught me, that her mother had taught her, passed down in a long line of female anger and sadness. We watched the blood drain from his face together, her eyes terrified but determined, pinning him down with so much strength that when I turned back for one last glimpse, his arms were black and blue, dark clouds in a growing sea of red. We ran away hand in hand, and finally, I felt the graveyard of girls rise up in an overwhelming rush of euphoria in my ribcage, before falling to a gentle buzz beneath my skin.
We rushed through the open palace gates with the girls of the household, into the unknown and the free.
Now, we listen to her stories under the moonlight of the sands, and my sword lies still.
Kwan-Ann Tan is a writer from Malaysia and a student of English at Oxford University. She edits for Rambutan Literary, and her work has been published or is forthcoming in places such as The Poetry Annals, Porridge Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine and The First Line. You can find her on Twitter at @KwanAnnTan and more of her work at kwananntan.carrd.co.