Chimera, p.1
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       Chimera, p.1

           John Barth




  A Fawcett Crest Book reprinted by arrangement with Random House, Inc.

  Copyright © 1972 by John Barth

  All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions

  thereof in any form. All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any

  resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

  Grateful acknowledgment is made to Collins-Knowlton-Wing, Inc., for

  permission to reprint material from The Greek Myths by Robert Graves.

  Copyright © 1955 by Robert Graves.

  “Dunyazadiad” first appeared in slightly different form in Esquire magazine,

  June 1972. “Perseid” first appeared in Harper’s magazine, September 1972.

  Alternate Selection of the Saturday Review Book Club, September 1972

  Alternate Selection of the Time Inc. Book Club, October 1972

  Alternate Selection of the American Journal Book Club, March 1973

  Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 72-3389

  Printed in the United States of America October 1973







  “At this point I interrupted my sister as usual to say, ‘You have a way with words, Scheherazade. This is the thousandth night I’ve sat at the foot of your bed while you and the King made love and you told him stories, and the one in progress holds me like a genie’s gaze. I wouldn’t dream of breaking in like this, just before the end, except that I hear the first rooster crowing in the east, et cetera, and the King really ought to sleep a bit before daybreak. I wish I had your talent.’

  “And as usual Sherry replied, ‘You’re the ideal audience, Dunyazade. But this is nothing; wait till you hear the ending, tomorrow night! Always assuming this auspicious King doesn’t kill me before breakfast, as he’s been going to do these thirty-three and a third months.’

  “ ‘Hmp,’ said Shahryar. ‘Don’t take your critics for granted; I may get around to it yet. But I agree with your little sister that this is a good one you’ve got going, with its impostures that become authentic, its ups and downs and flights to other worlds. I don’t know how in the world you dream them up.’

  “ ‘Artists have their tricks,’ Sherry replied. We three said good night then, six goodnights in all. In the morning your brother went off to court, enchanted by Sherry’s story. Daddy came to the palace for the thousandth time with a shroud under his arm, expecting to be told to cut his daughter’s head off; in most other respects he’s as good a vizier as he ever was, but three years of suspense have driven him crackers in this one particular—and turned his hair white, I might add, and made him a widower. Sherry and I, after the first fifty nights or so, were simply relieved when Shahryar would hmp and say, ‘By Allah, I won’t kill her till I’ve heard the end of her story’; but it still took Daddy by surprise every morning. He groveled gratitude per usual; the King per usual spent the day in his durbar, bidding and forbidding between man and man, as the saying goes; I climbed in with Sherry as soon as he was gone, and per usual we spent our day sleeping in and making love. When we’d had enough of each other’s tongues and fingers, we called in the eunuchs, maidservants, mamelukes, pet dogs and monkeys; then we finished off with Sherry’s Bag of Tricks: little weighted balls from Baghdad, dildoes from the Ebony Isles and the City of Brass, et cetera. Not to break a certain vow of mine, I made do with a roc-down tickler from Bassorah, but Sherry touched all the bases. Her favorite story is about some pig of an ifrit who steals a girl away on her wedding night, puts her in a treasure-casket locked with seven steel padlocks, puts the casket in a crystal coffer, and puts the coffer on the bottom of the ocean, so that nobody except himself can have her. But whenever he brings the whole rig ashore, unlocks the locks with seven keys, and takes her out and rapes her, he falls asleep afterward on her lap; she slips out from under and cuckolds him with every man who passes by, taking their seal rings as proof; at the end of the story she has five hundred seventy-two seal rings, and the stupid ifrit still thinks he possesses her! In the same way, Sherry put a hundred horns a day on your brother’s head: that’s about a hundred thousand horns by now. And every day she saved till last the Treasure Key, which is what her story starts and ends with.

  “Three and a third years ago, when King Shahryar was raping a virgin every night and killing her in the morning, and the people were praying that Allah would dump the whole dynasty, and so many parents had fled the country with their daughters that in all the Islands of India and China there was hardly a young girl fit to fuck, my sister was an undergraduate arts-and-sciences major at Banu Sasan University. Besides being Homecoming Queen, valedictorian-elect, and a four-letter varsity athlete, she had a private library of a thousand volumes and the highest average in the history of the campus. Every graduate department in the East was after her with fellowships—but she was so appalled at the state of the nation that she dropped out of school in her last semester to do full-time research on a way to stop Shahryar from killing all our sisters and wrecking the country.

  “Political science, which she looked at first, got her nowhere. Shahryar’s power was absolute, and by sparing the daughters of his army officers and chief ministers (like our own father) and picking his victims mainly from the families of liberal intellectuals and other minorities, he kept the military and the cabinet loyal enough to rule out a coup d’état. Revolution seemed out of the question, because his woman-hating, spectacular as it was, was reinforced more or less by all our traditions and institutions, and as long as the girls he was murdering were generally upper-caste, there was no popular base for guerrilla war. Finally, since he could count on your help from Samarkand, invasion from outside or plain assassination were bad bets too: Sherry figured your retaliation would be worse than Shahryar’s virgin-a-night policy.

  “So we gave up poly sci (I fetched her books and sharpened her quills and made tea and alphabetized her index cards) and tried psychology—another blind alley. Once she’d noted that your reaction to being cuckolded by your wife was homicidal rage followed by despair and abandonment of your kingdom, and that Shahryar’s was the reverse; and established that that was owing to the difference in your ages and the order of revelations; and decided that whatever pathology was involved was a function of the culture and your position as absolute monarchs rather than particular hang-ups in your psyches, et cetera—what was there to say?

  “She grew daily more desperate; the body-count of deflowered and decapitated Moslem girls was past nine hundred, and Daddy was just about out of candidates. Sherry didn’t especially care about herself, you understand—wouldn’t have even if she hadn’t guessed that the King was sparing her out of respect for his vizier and her own accomplishments. But beyond the general awfulness of the situation, she was particularly concerned for my sake. From the day I was born, when Sherry was about nine, she treasured me as if I were hers; I might as well not have had parents; she and I ate from the same plate, slept in the same bed; no one could separate us; I’ll bet we weren’t apart for an hour in the first dozen years of my life. But I never had her good looks or her way with the world—and I was the youngest in the family besides. My breasts were growing; already I’d begun to menstruate: any day Daddy might have to sacrifice me to save Sherry.

  “So when nothing else worked, as a last resort she turned to her first love, unlikely as it seemed, mythology and folklore, and studied all the riddle/puzzle/secret motifs she could dig up. ‘We need a miracle, Doony,’ she said (I was braiding her hair and massaging her neck as she went through her note
s for the thousandth time), ‘and the only genies I’ve ever met were in stories, not in Moormans’-rings and Jews’-lamps. It’s in words that the magic is—Abracadabra, Open Sesame, and the rest—but the magic words in one story aren’t magical in the next. The real magic is to understand which words work, and when, and for what; the trick is to learn the trick.’

  “This last, as our frantic research went on, became her motto, even her obsession. As she neared the end of her supply of lore, and Shahryar his supply of virgins, she became more and more certain that her principle was correct, and desperate that in the whole world’s stock of stories there was none that confirmed it, or showed us how to use it to solve the problem. ‘I’ve read a thousand tales about treasures that nobody can find the key to,’ she told me; ‘we have the key and can’t find the treasure.’ I asked her to explain. ‘It’s all in here,’ she declared—I couldn’t tell whether she meant her inkstand or the quill she pointed toward it. I seldom understood her any more; as the crisis grew, she gave up reading for daydreaming, and used her pen less for noting instances of the Magic Key motif in world literature than for doodling the letters of our alphabet at random and idly tickling herself.

  “ ‘Little Doony,’ she said dreamily, and kissed me: ‘pretend this whole situation is the plot of a story we’re reading, and you and I and Daddy and the King are all fictional characters. In this story, Scheherazade finds a way to change the King’s mind about women and turn him into a gentle, loving husband. It’s not hard to imagine such a story, is it? Now, no matter what way she finds—whether it’s a magic spell or a magic story with the answer in it or a magic anything—it comes down to particular words in the story we’re reading, right? And those words are made from the letters of our alphabet: a couple-dozen squiggles we can draw with this pen. This is the key, Doony! And the treasure, too, if we can only get our hands on it! It’s as if—as if the key to the treasure is the treasure!’

  “As soon as she spoke these last words a genie appeared from nowhere right there in our library-stacks. He didn’t resemble anything in Sherry’s bedtime stories: for one thing, he wasn’t frightening, though he was strange-looking enough: a light-skinned fellow of forty or so, smooth-shaven and bald as a roc’s egg. His clothes were simple but outlandish; he was tall and healthy and pleasant enough in appearance, except for queer lenses that he wore in a frame over his eyes. He seemed as startled as we were—you should’ve seen Sherry drop that pen and pull her skirts together!—but he got over his alarm sooner, and looked from one to the other of us and at a stubby little magic wand he held in his fingers, and smiled a friendly smile.

  “ ‘Are you really Scheherazade?’ he asked. ‘I’ve never had a dream so clear and lifelike! And you’re little Dunyazade—just as I’d imagined both of you! Don’t be frightened: I can’t tell you what it means to me to see and talk to you like this; even in a dream, it’s a dream come true. Can you understand English? I don’t have a word of Arabic. O my, I can’t believe this is really happening!’

  “Sherry and I looked at each other. The Genie didn’t seem dangerous; we didn’t know those languages he spoke of; every word he said was in our language, and when Sherry asked him whether he’d come from her pen or from her words, he seemed to understand the question, though he didn’t know the answer. He was a writer of tales, he said—anyhow a former writer of tales—in a land on the other side of the world. At one time, we gathered, people in his country had been fond of reading; currently, however, the only readers of artful fiction were critics, other writers, and unwilling students who, left to themselves, preferred music and pictures to words. His own pen (that magic wand, in fact a magic quill with a fountain of ink inside) had just about run dry: but whether he had abandoned fiction or fiction him, Sherry and I couldn’t make out when we reconstructed this first conversation later that night, for either in our minds or in his a number of crises seemed confused. Like Shahryar’s, the Genie’s life was in disorder—but so far from harboring therefore a grudge against womankind, he was distractedly in love with a brace of new mistresses, and only recently had been able to choose between them. His career, too, had reached a hiatus which he would have been pleased to call a turning-point if he could have espied any way to turn: he wished neither to repudiate nor to repeat his past performances; he aspired to go beyond them toward a future they were not attuned to and, by some magic, at the same time go back to the original springs of narrative. But how this was to be managed was as unclear to him as the answer to the Shahryar-problem was to us—the more so since he couldn’t see how much of his difficulty might be owing to his own limitations, his age and stage and personal vicissitudes; how much to the general decline of letters in his time and place; and how much to the other crises with which his country (and, so he alleged, the very species) was beset—crises as desperate and problematical, he avowed, as ours, and as inimical to the single-mindedness needed to compose great works of art or the serenity to apprehend them.

  “So entirely was he caught up in these problems, his work and life all had come to a standstill. He had taken leave of his friends, his family, and his post (he was a doctor of letters), and withdrawn to a lonely retreat in the marshes, which only the most devoted of his mistresses deigned to visit.

  “ ‘My project,’ he told us, ‘is to learn where to go by discovering where I am by reviewing where I’ve been—where we’ve all been. There’s a kind of snail in the Maryland marshes—perhaps I invented him—that makes his shell as he goes along out of whatever he comes across, cementing it with his own juices, and at the same time makes his path instinctively toward the best available material for his shell; he carries his history on his back, living in it, adding new and larger spirals to it from the present as he grows. That snail’s pace has become my pace—but I’m going in circles, following my own trail! I’ve quit reading and writing; I’ve lost track of who I am; my name’s just a jumble of letters; so’s the whole body of literature: strings of letters and empty spaces, like a code that I’ve lost the key to.’ He pushed those odd lenses up on the bridge of his nose with his thumb—a habit that made me giggle—and grinned. ‘Well, almost the whole body. Speaking of keys, I suspect that’s how I got here.’

  “By way of answer to Sherry’s question then, whether he had sprung from her quill-pen or her words, he declared that his researches, like hers, had led him to an impasse; he felt that a treasure-house of new fiction lay vaguely under his hand, if he could find the key to it. Musing idly on this figure, he had added to the morass of notes he felt himself mired in, a sketch for a story about a man who comes somehow to realize that the key to the treasure he’s searching for is the treasure. Just exactly how so (and how the story might be told despite all the problems that beset him) he had no chance to consider, for the Instant he set on paper the words The key to the treasure is the treasure, he found himself with us—for how long, or to what end, or by what means, he had no idea, unless it was that of all the storytellers in the world, his very favorite was Scheherazade.

  “ ‘Listen how I chatter on!’ he ended happily. ‘Do forgive me!’

  “My sister, after some thought, ventured the opinion that the astonishing coincidence of her late reveries and his, which had led them as it were simultaneously to the same cryptic formulation, must have something to do with his translation to her library. She looked forward, she said, to experimenting whether a reverse translation could be managed, If the worst came to worst, to spirit me out of harm’s way; as for herself, she had no time or use for idle flights of fancy, however curious, from the gynocide that was ravaging her country: remarkable as it was, she saw no more relevance to her problems than to his in this bit of magic.

  “ ‘But we know the answer’s right here in our hands!’ the Genie exclaimed. ‘We’re both storytellers: you must sense as strongly as I that it has something to do with the key to the treasure’s being the treasure.’

  “My sister’s nostrils narrowed. ‘Twice you’ve called me a storytell
er,’ she said; ‘yet I’ve never told a story in my life except to Dunyazade, and her bedtime stories were the ones that everybody tells. The only tale I’ve ever invented myself was this key-to-the-treasure one just now, which I scarcely understand…’

  “ ‘Good lord!’ the Genie cried. ‘Do you mean to say that you haven’t even started your thousand and one nights yet?’

  “Sherry shook her head grimly. ‘The only thousand nights I know of is the time our pig of a king has been killing the virgin daughters of the Moslems.’

  “Our bespectacled visitor then grew so exhilarated that for some time he couldn’t speak at all. Presently he seized my sister’s hand and dumbfounded us both by declaring his lifelong adoration of her, a declaration that brought blushes to our cheeks. Years ago, he said, when he’d been a penniless student pushing book-carts through the library-stacks of his university to help pay for his education, he contracted a passion for Scheherazade upon first reading the tales she beguiled King Shahryar with, and had sustained that passion so powerfully ever since that his love affairs with other, ‘real’ women seemed to him by comparison unreal, his two-decade marriage but a prolonged infidelity to her, his own fictions were mimicries, pallid counterfeits of the authentic treasure of her Thousand and One Nights.

  “ ‘Beguiled the King with!’ Sherry said. ‘I’ve thought of that! Daddy believes that Shahryar would really like to quit what he’s doing before the country falls apart, but needs an excuse to break his vow without losing face with his younger brother. I’d considered letting him make love to me and then telling him exciting stories, which I’d leave unfinished from one night to the next till he’d come to know me too well to kill me. I even thought of slipping in stories about kings who’d suffered worse hardships than he and his brother without turning vindictive; or lovers who weren’t unfaithful; or husbands who loved their wives more than themselves. But it’s too fanciful! Who knows which stories would work? Especially in those first few nights! I can see him sparing me for a day or two, maybe, out of relief; but then he’d react against his lapse and go back to his old policy. I gave the idea up.’

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