Once there was a woman who lived with her mother. She was as beautiful as her mother was poor. The woman was tall and voluptuous. She had the fine looks of a noble Egyptian. Her nose was exquisite. Her hair was a dark amber, full and flowing. Her eyes were at once dark and bright. And she had such a soft, dark down on her as would drive a man to distraction.

Her only possession of any worth was a sandalwood box which had been in her family for generations. It was intricately carved, with a fine network of tiny holes worked into the lid.

Now, the king of that country was tall and strong, and one day he decided it was time he took a wife to be his queen, to be his life companion and to assist him with the affairs of state. Thinking himself a lusty fellow, he decided he would only marry with a woman who had two. So, he put out a proclamation throughout the land that he wished to marry and would receive applications to be queen from any woman who had two.

Thousands of young women, and some not so young, besieged the palace, eager to be queen. Each one was directed to the office of the Grand Vizier, whose job it was to study their applications and to scrutinise their credentials. The Grand Vizier was diligent in his work. He was willing to apply himself for long hours each day. He enjoyed his work. But he found no applicant with the necessary qualifications to be queen.

The woman’s mother, like many mothers throughout the land, urged her daughter to attend the palace and try her luck, but the woman said,

“No! I will wait.”

And the more the poor woman urged her daughter to attend the palace the more she refused,

“No! I will wait.”

The flow of applicants dwindled from thousands to hundreds to dozens to just a trickle each day, until the day when there was no applicant at all. The king was disappointed and frustrated. On the following day, the woman put on her finest raiment, drew a veil over her face, took the sandalwood box, and made her way to the palace, where she was directed to the office of the Grand Vizier.

“No!” she said, “I’m not going to present myself to some Grand Voyeur. I will only deal directly with the king.”

Well, as the sole remaining applicant they could hardly refuse, and so she was brought before the king.

“You have the necessary qualifications?” asked the king.

“I do,” she replied.

“So, show me,” he said.

“Certainly not,” she replied, “What sort of women do you think I am. Not until you have married with me.”

“Well,” said the king, “at least remove your veil and let me see your face.”

So, she removed her veil and he gazed in delight upon her fine looks, as of a noble Egyptian, her exquisite nose, her hair a dark amber, full and flowing, her eyes at once dark and bright. And the soft, dark down of her drove him to distraction. So, the Grand Vizier was called as witness and they made their vows, to be true to one another and to make the journey of love together, until their time shall pass away.

Then they were escorted to the bedchamber prepared for a queen, should she be found. When they were alone, the king kissed her gently and said,

“Now, show me.”

And so, she unveiled herself to him. She had such a voluptuous beauty on her as was renowned for centuries, and even a thousand years later the singers of the Song of Songs, the Sacred Marriage, recalled her as the model for their bride,

“Behold, thou art fair, my love, behold thou art surpassing fair.
Thy nose is as the Tower of Lebanon that looketh toward Damascus,
And the smell of thy nose is like apples.

Thy breasts are like twin fawns feasting upon lilies.
Thy stature is like unto a palm tree,
And thy breasts to clusters of grapes.

Thy belly is like to an heap of wheat set about with lilies.
Verily, the joy of thee is as a pure translucent pearl in a setting of dark amber.
Yea, the joy of thee is as a song bird, so feathery and soft and warm and pulsing with life beneath the bridegroom’s hand.”

“But,” said the king huffily, “you only have one. You promised me two, but you have only one.”

She laughed, deep and sultry,

“I don’t wear them both at once. We can only use one at a time. I keep the spare in this little sandalwood box.”

And she showed him the sandalwood box, so intricately carved with its network of tiny holes worked into the lid.

By now the royal sceptre was risen keen as a sickle at harvest. This was no time to quibble over contracts. And so, they entered into one another and loved one another in every imaginable way and every unimaginable way and the months passed in joy.

Now, the queen had a fine bedchamber, with a great window looking to the south, and each day she put out crumbs and tiny sweetmeats for the birds, so that they came to know and trust her and became her friends.

One day the king came to her, as she always knew he would, to tell her he must make a long journey to a distant land. And he asked, rather shyly for a great king, as he was to be away for some time, if he might take the spare.

“Why, of course, my love,” said the queen, “that way I can journey with you. I will bring it to you as you depart.”

And so, when the birds came to visit her window sill, she took a young wren gently in her hands, carefully placed it in the sandalwood box, so intricately carved with its network of tiny holes worked into the lid, along with water and sweetmeats.

She brought the sandalwood box with its precious contents to the king. “Take good care of it,” she said to him, “for it would be a tragedy if our only spare were to be lost.”

After journeying for several days, the king came to an arbour of cherry trees all in blossom, where a bank of soft grass, warm in the sun, sloped down to a gentle stream arched by sweet willow. He removed his clothing, lay down on the warm grass, and took, into his hand, the sandalwood box.

As he slipped his hand inside the box and felt what was within, so feathery and soft and warm and pulsing with life beneath his hand, the royal sceptre rose keen as a sickle at harvest. He opened the box, and joyful for its release the young wren flew up and away and was gone. The king was mortified that in his passion he had lost the only spare beyond hope of retrieval. After that his journey was long and bitter.

In the absence of the king, the queen ruled the land with patience, good sense and sharp attention. Except, her ministers noticed, from time to time she would muse a space and a secret smile would flit across her lips, as she conducted the affairs of state.

The day came when the watchmen called that the king was in sight. The queen retired to her bedchamber, where the king joined her immediately upon his arrival.

“A terrible thing has happened,” he blurted out, “I have lost the spare.”

He fell to his knees, his head drooping in despair.

“Well, my love,” she said, as she took him by the hand and raised him up, “that is indeed a terrible thing, but we shall just have to make the best use we can of the one which remains.”

And so, they entered into one another afresh. They stroked and caressed one another with fragrant oils. They shared their feelings and felt for one another. They told each other stories and poems and sang songs. And they argued and fought and struggled together. They reflected together in simple contemplation, quietness and peace. They loved one another in every imaginable way and every unimaginable way, and laughed and laughed together, for there is no laughter so glorious as the laughter of the bedchamber.

And slowly, and in due time, as his manhood grew, the king came to realise how his wife the queen had had two all along, how she still had two, of the body and of the soul. And so, they ruled the land with majesty and power, and lived and journeyed one with the other, in that mysterious conjoining of difference which is the very soul of conjugal love. Until their time shall pass away.

This is my very different rendering of the popular campfire story, ‘The Woman Who Had Two.’

© David England, 2003

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