Throwback Thursday: The Sleeper Awakened by Jeana Jorgensen
Editor’s note: Today's Throwback Thursday poem is rich in detail, and the storytelling will fire your imagination.... Enjoy!
You must remember that I smiled daily through sleep-stained eyes, accepted jewels from your hand, each gem a weight on my neck, a cruel pressure that stopped up my throat and caged my voice but nonetheless let it rest. When one night of marriage flipped into two, then three, then four, it was as though the whole palace seized and sighed, and servants began to look me in the eye and heed my requests. My sister commanded an army of couriers: sent them to the Maghreb, to the Mamluks, to el-Andalus, to the Chola dynasty, to warring Seljuqs and Jalayirids, and oh the stories they brought back: calligraphy on lamb-skin parchment, papyrus, even paper from farther east. Before, I had enough stories in me – some from books, some from mouths – to number as many as ants drawn to honey. Within weeks, I had enough stories to compete with stars in the sky, enough to keep me alive, but still one was missing: the story to buy my freedom. An emissary from the clever Kabyles laid one manuscript at my feet: spooling threads of Maghrebi calligraphy almost overflowing and spilling onto the rugs, threatening to dye tassels with its rich blue ink written in lilting Tifinagh script: twenty tales, and one a key. The peasant man switches places with a caliph (my mind catalogues the motif, coming up with 31 similar tales immediately) who enjoys his loquacious inebriation and dresses up the peasant in his clothes, making him caliph for a day. The peasant thinks himself caliph, makes advances to the slave girls, caresses them with words and callused hands until one agrees to come to his bed: but first, a meal, one she peppers with banj, and the sleep that comes for him is swift, his memories muddled. Swallowed by sleep, the peasant wakes in his own bed: was he a caliph dreaming of being a peasant, or a peasant dreaming of being caliph? Two more nights the caliph tricks him; two more nights the slave girl drugs him. Eventually the caliph reveals the ruse, rewarding the peasant with wealth for life. No more is written of the slave girl. She disappears from the story. The court chemist finds me banj, laces it with poppy milk and other gifts from loyal diplomats. Loyal to me, I should specify. I know how much you love your tea before story-time. You’ve loved it for months now …how many months? Ah. Good question, but the main question now is: Should you disappear? Or should I?
Jeana Jorgensen earned her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy tales and fairy-tale retellings, folk narrative more generally, body art, dance, and feminist/queer theory. Her poetry has appeared at Strange Horizons, Quatrain. Fish, Liminality, Glittership, and other venues. Image of Scheherazade by Virginia Sterett.
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