The story I have to tell is truly a strange one, and were the entirety to be tattooed at the corner of one’s eye, the marvel of its presentation would not exceed that of the events recounted…
A lovely salute to the storytelling girl in The Orphan’s Tales, and a big claim to make. At turns engaging, thoughtful, amusing, and comforting, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” by Ted Chiang follows through.
The story opens with the cloth merchant Fuwaad ibn Abbas telling his story to the Caliph of Baghdad. Fuwaad tells how he entered the shop of the alchemist Bashaarat. Bashaarat shows him marvels, including a gate that crosses time. I love Fuwaad’s skepticism about alchemy and the gate itself. Bashaarat explains how the Gate works with the best hand-waving about the fabric of space and the flow of time I’ve ever heard.
Then Bashaarat tells three stories that nest and intertwine with each other in a wonderful manner. In the first, a merchant learns from his older self. In the second, a man steals from his older self. The third is a funny tale of how a woman shows her love for her husband.
Once Fuwaad is convinced that the Gate is real, he has to try it. He has lived a life of regret and he is desperate for any chance to change it. Of course it doesn’t work, and he ends up without a dirham to his name, his heart broken all over again. Then he receives a message that finally allows him to forgive himself.
Finally we pop all the stacks and return to Fuwaad coming to the end of the tale, and setting his fate into the Caliph’s hands. What he has learned chokes me up just thinking about this story.
Tomorrow: Something light.