Sunday, 2 September 2012

The Two Thousand Nights and the Two Nights, Again

And on the one thousand and eighth night, after the king had done with her as was his wont, Shahrazad began:



Long ago, O Great King, in the passage of an age and the moment, in the isles of India and China, there dwelt two brothers in a little town.

These brothers were called Kamr-ad-Din and Shadr-ad-Din, and they were very poor indeed. Kamr-ad-Din, the elder, worked as a helper in the shop of a cloth merchant in the market. The younger brother, Shadr-ad-Din, earned a living as a woodcutter who supplied fuel for the public hamam. Though they were so poor, they were happy, because they lived with their sister, whom they both loved dearly.

This sister’s name was Mehr-un-Nisa, and she was famous for her beauty and wit throughout the town. Many men had come to ask for her hand in marriage, but Mehr-un-Nisa had always declined, because she knew that her brothers would be miserable without her. And though they would give her all the money they earned, she was as careful with it as though each coin could be weighed in blood and tears.

Every evening when they returned from work, Mehr-un-Nisa would have food ready for them, and would fan them gently while they rested and soothe them with her singing, for she had as musical a voice as she was beautiful and witty. And, in the morning, before her brothers arose, she would get up and make them breakfast from whatever food was in the house. If they asked what she would eat, she would always say she had already eaten, and smile to watch them savour whatever she had made for them.

As time went on, things began to improve a little for the brothers. The cloth merchant, who was getting on in years, decided to go on the holy pilgrimage to Mākkāh; and, because Kamr-ad-Din had proved himself both honest and competent, raised him to the position of steward of the shop to take care of it in his stead. Meanwhile, Shadr-ad-Din had – owning to the hard work he did every day – caught the eye of the kādi, to whose house he now supplied wood, too, and a few more places beside. So the family had a little more money to spend, but Mehr-un-Nisa was as careful with it as she had always been, because she knew that no blessing can be depended on to last forever.

Only Allah knows how long things might have gone on like this, but one day the elder brother, Kamr-ad-Din, did not come back from work at the usual time from the cloth merchant’s shop. His sister and brother waited anxiously, for it had never happened before that he had been late. The night was far advanced, and they were on the verge of going to look for him, when they saw him coming. He entered the house with mournful sighs, his face downcast and deep unhappiness in his eyes. Even Mehr-un-Nisa’s singing failed to lift his spirits, so she and Shadr-ad-Din pressed him to tell them what was troubling him so in spirit. At first he said it was nothing, but at last he sighed and wiped a tear from his eyes.

“As you know, brother and sister,” he began, “my master has left me in charge while he made the holy pilgrimage, and all the months of his absence I have taken care of his business with as much care and diligence as if it had been my own. I had begun looking forward to his return, because I had wanted to show him how well I had managed his business while he was away. And, because he has no heirs, I had even begun to hope that in the course of time he might leave the shop to me.

“Well, this evening, while I was sitting in the shop, all of a sudden I heard a commotion, and saw people rushing as though to see something truly spectacular. I could not leave the shop to see why they were so excited, but in the event it did not matter, because soon I saw that the excited crowd was coming in my direction. Straight in front of the shop the throng halted, and parted to let through an ass, followed by a few woman slaves. Such an ass it was – its bridle set with gems of inestimable value, its back covered with cloth of gold, its mane and tail braided with silks light as whispers. And on its back was a woman – a woman of such beauty as shone through the market as if the moon herself had come down to the earth.

“ ‘Ya Allah,’ I thought to myself, ‘such a beauty must have come from among the perīs, for among mortal women there surely cannot be her equal.’ Then she dismounted, handed the reins to one of her women, and entered the shop; and it was as if the moon and stars had  graced the premises with their presence.

“ ‘Dear lady,’ I said, my throat dry, ‘tell me in what way I can help you, for I am indeed your slave.’ And I improvised these lines:

“ ‘She came into my night, and the night turned day
As I thought the sun stood still –
And I drank of her beauty like the finest wine
I drink on, and cannot drink my fill.
If her beauty made the sun to rise
It will not cause it to set
And my eyes will never turn to other skies
Enslaved, they drink her beauty yet.’

“At this she laughed, and her voice was like crystal bells.

“ ‘You do not have to offer yourself in slavery to me, brave youth,’ she said, ‘but I should like to see your stock, for I have need of cloth of the finest quality, and your shop is famous for being the best in the entire market. You will not find me parsimonious in payment.’

“Almost stumbling in my haste, I drew forth bolt after bolt of my best material, and spread them out for her inspection. She casually fingered each sheet of cloth, hardly even looking at it, but her laughing eyes followed me everywhere, and twice, on the pretext of adjusting her veil, she let it drop momentarily – and, oh, brother and sister, if I had thought the moon and stars were in my shop earlier, they were nothing to the beauty she exhibited at that instant. My heart was lost to her forever at that moment, and I hardly knew anything more.

“ ‘And is this shop your own, brave youth?’ she asked, looking around, and because I was so smitten by her, I found my mouth foolishly saying, ‘Yes, mistress, this shop and all in it are the property of your slave.’

“ ‘I am glad to know that,’ she said. ‘It is nice to see that so young a man as you has such a wonderful shop with such splendid merchandise. You will surely prosper in the years to come, if Allah wills.’

“By the time I had shown her the last of the cloth in the shop, it was dark outside and the marketplace had begun to empty. She picked out several bolts of cloth seemingly at random, handed them to her women, and rose to her feet, plucking a purse from her waist as she did so.

“ ‘And what do I owe you for this cloth, brave youth?’ she asked, smiling and letting her veil slip once more, so that I felt as though my heart would stop beating inside my chest.

“ ‘As Allah rules in heaven, my mistress,’ I declared, ‘serving you is my pleasure. I would no more take money from you, than I would harm my beloved sister and brother. Please take the cloth as a gift, for everything I have is yours.’

“She smiled again, her veil still held aside. ‘Everything, Kamr-ad-Din?’ she asked, sweetly. It was the first indication I received, that she knew my name. ‘We shall see, we shall see. Keep this with you until I return’ With that, she handed me a ring from her finger, left the shop, mounted her ass, and rode away into the night, her women following her, carrying the bolts of cloth with them.

“As for me, my world darkened before my eyes with her departure. For a long time I sat as one lost, my mind full of her voice and her beauty, until at length I thought to bestir myself and tidy up the remaining cloth. It was then that I discovered that, while seeming to choose at random, she had taken the very finest and most expensive of the cloth in the shop. I am left with a gaping hole in my accounts, and I received word yesterday that my master will return from his pilgrimage before the fortnight is out.

“What am I to do?” Kamr-ad-Din asked. “On the one hand, I cannot breathe or eat or drink for love of her, though I do not even know her name. On the other, I have to make up the money, to the extent of almost a thousand dinārs, that are owed to the accounts for the cloth she took. Can you blame me for being unhappy?”

“My brother,” Mehr-un-Nisa replied, “do not worry, because...”


At this point, Shahrazad saw the approach of dawn and discreetly fell silent.

But when the one thousand and ninth night had come,



My brother,” Mehr-un-Nisa said, “do not worry. Everything will be all right, if Allah wills.” She went to the corner and, after moving aside some belongings, took out a pouch. “In this bag,” she said, “are a thousand dinārs, which I have saved over the years from what you have given me. It is your money, so take it and make up the deficit. But let me see the ring which this unknown lady gave you.”

Kamr-ad-Din took the purse with an exclamation of relief and surprise, and handed over the ring. Mehr-un-Nisa and Shadr-ad-Din examined the ring, and their faces grew grave.

“Brother,” Shadr-ad-Din said, “this ring bears the symbol of the kādi, to whose house, as you know, I deliver firewood. The lady who visited you must be his daughter, whom they call Star-Of-Morning.”

“She is well-known in the town,” Mehr-un-Nisa said, “for her beauty as much as for her sly and capricious nature. It is said that she will seek out a youth and do everything to bring him under her control, make him her slave in heart and soul, and then ruin him, break his heart and move on to her next victim. It is said that this is a sport with her, for she hates all men.”

“Her father, the kādi,” Shadr-ad-Din said, “is a cross-grained old miser, who grudges even the few copper coins he pays me for the firewood I deliver to his kitchen. He clothes his slaves in the poorest cast-offs, which even the beggars of the souks scorn, and feeds them on scraps. He loves his daughter, and grudges her nothing, but hates the rest of the world and everything in it.”

But Kamr-ad-Din rose, shaking with anger. “You both lie,” he said, snatching the ring. “If the lady is indeed the fabulous Star-Of-Morning, she is every bit as beauteous as they say, and more – and I love her completely and forever. It is only out of jealousy on your part,” he said to Mehr-un-Nisa, “jealousy of a lady who is more beautiful and accomplished than you, that you say this. And you,” he turned to Shadr-ad-Din, “who go to the kādi’s house every day, must be plotting to make her your own, and this is why you slander her and her noble father to me in such fashion.” Still trembling with anger, he turned to leave.

“Wait, brother,” Mehr-un-Nisa called. “Where are you going?”

“I will not stay here an instant longer,” Kamr-ad-Din snapped. “I will go to the merchants’ khān, and spend the night there. Tomorrow, I will find another place to live.” So saying, he stormed out into the night, leaving his shocked brother and sister behind.

“Do not grieve, sister,” Shadr-ad-Din said, wiping away the girl’s tears. “Our brother is not in his right mind. He will recover and return to us soon, I am sure.”

“I know he is not at fault,” Mehr-un-Nisa responded. “He cannot help himself, for Star-Of-Morning knows magical wiles, and when she sets her eyes on a man he is no more in control of himself than clouds are when they are blown by the wind. But I am afraid that she will destroy him long before he recovers his senses.”

“Then,” Shadr-ad-Din asked reasonably, “what is it that we should do?”

Mehr-un-Nisa was silent a long time. Then at last she stirred. “I will go to Star-Of-Morning,” she said, “and ask her to set our brother free.”

“Do you think that will work?”

“It’s worth trying,” Mehr-un-Nisa replied. “Even if it does not work, talking to her will help me understand just why she is doing what she does. Come with me, brother, and show me the way to the kādi’s house.”

When they reached the old man’s house, it was already very late, but lights still glowed in certain windows. Bidding Shadr-ad-Din wait, Mehr-un-Nisa made her way to the eunuch guarding the door and, giving him a dinār, asked him to take her to the presence of the lady Star-Of-Morning. The slave promptly complied, conducting her through the darkened corridors of the mansion until she stood before the lady herself.

Star-Of-Morning greeted Mehr-un-Nisa with a smile. “Welcome, dear girl,” she said. “What do you want of me?”

“You were at my brother’s shop today,” Mehr-un-Nisa said. “Kamr-ad-Din is his name, and I have come to beseech you to let him go, for he is lost in you, until he no longer knows his own brother and sister for who they are.”

Star-Of-Morning laughed, throwing back her head. “Indeed,” she said, “I have only just begun. Tomorrow I will visit the shop again, and take more cloth, and ask him to take payment. If he agrees, why, I shall pay what I owe and go away. But he will not agree, so I shall take what I want and drive him further into my snare. Before his employer returns – for I know that he does not own the shop, dear girl – I will have put him into such a position that he faces financial ruin, and yet he cannot help what he does because he loves me. I will destroy him completely, and only then will I be content.”

“Lady,” Mehr-un-Nisa said, “I beseech you not to do this, for Kamr-ad-Din has never done anyone any harm, least of all you.”

“He is a man,” Star-Of-Morning replied, raising her lip scornfully. “Is it not enough?”

“If that is what you think,” the girl responded, “In Allah’s name, tell me why you hate men so much, that you should seek to destroy my brother, who has done you no harm.”

Star-Of-Morning motioned for Mehr-un-Nisa to sit down. “When I was a young girl,” she said, “much younger than you, I once had a dream.


“I stood on a dry brown plain, on which nothing grew. It was not far from this town, for I could see the buildings in the distance, but before me was a tall hill like a needle which pierced the sky. And all around that hill flew birds of myriad colours, each more splendid than the other, so that they are impossible to describe.

“It was a strange and desolate place for birds of such beauty, and I was reminded of the words of the poet, who wrote:

“If in time I saw her smile
Or her eye shed a tear
It would shine as a diamond might
Or a pearl in her ear.
Though her eyes are dry with age
And her smile be like desert sand
I would die for another smile
Or for the touch of her hand.

“As I was standing there, I saw a she-jackal, who had a sick puppy at home, and had hunted long for the one thing that might save him. At last, she had caught it – a bird from among those splendid birds, with feathers of gold and eyes of emerald. She was carrying it to her den, for it to touch the sick puppy with one of its golden wings, whereupon he would be cured. But all of a sudden a big male jackal rushed upon her, threw her to the ground, and bit her all over until she was forced to let the bird go. Instantly it flew away, and the big male jackal left the poor she-jackal bleeding in the dust, crying piteously at her own wounds and at the fate of her child, who could never now be well again.

“Every night since then, the dream has come to me again, until I am convinced that it is no mere dream, but that I am watching something that has actually happened. And every night the poor she-jackal’s wounds bleed more grievously, and her cries grow more piteous, while the male jackal grows more ravening still, and more cruel in his attack on the other.

“This is why, O girl, I have held within me a hatred of the male sex, amounting almost to a passion, and have sought to destroy it by the only weapons I possess, my beauty and my wiles. Are you satisfied, now that you know why I do what I do?”

“Mistress,” Mehr-un-Nisa responded, “it was only a dream, and in dreams, if truth be told, we see things which can never be. But, if you can, tell me in what way I can satisfy your passion so that you do not destroy my brother, for he is dearer to me than life itself.”

Star-Of-Morning looked at her a long time. “Bring me the bird,” she said at last, “the bird with golden feathers and emeralds for eyes, so that I may restore it to the she-jackal, when I next see her in my dream. With the touch of its gold feathers, she can heal her wounds, and then she can heal her sick puppy. Get me the bird, and I will release your brother, because if the she-jackal’s agony is healed, I will no longer feel the need to hurt the male sex in revenge.”

“Mistress,” Mehr-un-Nisa said, “it will be as you wish. Be as it may, if Allah allows, I will fetch you this wondrous bird. But, please, I beg of you, do not harm my brother any further until I bring it to you.”

Star-Of-Morning nodded. “You shall have till the end of this week,” she said. “For at the end of the fortnight your brother’s master returns from his pilgrimage, and I must do with him as I have to before that.”

Much troubled, Mehr-un-Nisa left the kādi’s house and, with Shadr-ad-Din her brother, made her way back home. Only then did she tell of what she had learned.

“I have been to all the areas around this town while gathering wood,” Shadr-ad-Din told her, “and I have never seen, or heard of, such a hill as she describes, or such birds.”

“I have seen it, though,” his sister said. “Many months ago, when you and our brother were at work...”


At this point, Shahrazad saw the approach of dawn and discreetly fell silent.

But when the one thousand and tenth night had come,




Many months ago,” Mehr-un-Nisa said, “when you and our brother were at work, a poor old woman, in rags but with a nobility of features that spoke of great knowledge and wisdom, came to our door begging for alms. So noble was her bearing that I could not turn her away, but gave her the food I had kept for myself, little as it was. She ate it with great satisfaction, and afterwards, she took out a small box from a bag she carried, and showed it to me. It was full of ash which she said would help one see things as they actually were, if smeared on one’s eyes. She gave it to me, but first made me promise never to use it for my own benefit, for then it would harm me grievously.”

From inside her robe, where she kept it next to her skin, Mehr-un-Nisa drew forth the box, which was so small that it barely covered her palm. Opening it, she showed her brother the ash which lay within. Then, putting the box down, she resumed her tale:

“What she told me was that we can only see a fraction of the world around us, and if we could see it all, we would go mad, for mortal minds cannot comprehend the full extent of Allah’s creations. So saying, she rubbed a little of the ash on my eyelids, and instantly the world around me rippled and changed. I could see, there on that wall behind you, a gibbering black ifrīt, which mouthed and grimaced in anger at having been discovered. And, there, through that window, I saw that the streets were full of creatures beyond imagining, jinni, ghouls, and others, jostling shoulders with men and women who went about their business, all unaware of their presence.

“Then the old woman took me by the hand and led me to the door, and bade me look around the city. And I saw that the buildings and palaces were merely shells, for under their roofs and inside their walls was a multitude of cities and towns, one inside another, filled with all manner of creatures. And, flying overhead, I could see jewelled birds, the like of which I had never seen before.

“Before the old woman led me back into the house so that I might wash the ash from my eyes, I also saw, to the west, a mighty range of hills against the horizon, and one of them stood out from all the others – a mountain like a needle of stone, so thin and tall that it might have pierced the sky. I am certain that this is the mountain that Star-Of-Morning saw in her dream, and there it is that we must seek the golden bird.”

After he heard this, Shadr-ad-Din was silent a long time. Finally, sighing, he looked at Mehr-un-Nisa. “My sister,” he said, “it remains, then, only for me to go and seek this bird. Give me, then, this box, so that I may smear the ash on my eyes, for we have no time to lose.”

“Brother,” Mehr-un-Nisa said, “it is impossible for you to go alone, for that world is full of danger. I will go with you. Let us, though, wait until the morning, for nothing can be gained by going forth tonight. Let us sleep as much as we can, for we will need the rest to face the rigours tomorrow will bring.”

Shadr-ad-Din said nothing; but he had decided to go alone, for he was convinced  that it would not be safe if she went with him. He thought, too, that he might be able to find the bird and return before dawn, so that his sister might not even realise that he had left. So, he lay awake until he was sure his sister had fallen asleep. Then he rose from his place, opened the box, took a little of the ash and smeared it on his eyes. Instantly, the darkness dissipated and he could see the room filled with a dim light, and strange shapes writhed in the corners and around the ceiling.   

Without waiting to look at the monstrous faces scowling and snarling at him, he quickly left the house, forgetting in his haste even to close the box, which lay still open on the table where he had put it. Outside, in the street, he quickly saw the mountain and made his way towards it, shouldering his way past the jinni, ifrīts and ghouls which filled the streets of the town at night.

For the moment we shall leave him to go on his way, and go to see what had happened to Kamr-ad-Din.

This young man, after quitting home, had hired a room at the merchant’s khān, and for a long time there he tossed and turned on his mattress, for he was sorely troubled. He felt deep remorse that he had treated his brother and sister so cruelly, and did not, thinking back, understand how he could have been so harsh with them. He did not know, of course, that he had been under the spell of Star-of-Morning, and that, in accordance with her promise to Mehr-un-Nisa, she had temporarily relaxed the spell. When he thought of her now, he still felt an overwhelming desire for her, but not to the extent that he would place her over his own flesh and blood.

Finally, unable to sleep or even to lie down any longer, he rose from his place and, taking the ring that Star-of-Morning had given him, went walking through the streets to the kādi’s house, intending to see her by all means and demand that she take it back. But, try as he might, he could not find the old man’s mansion, because Star-Of-Morning had hidden it from him. Finally, distraught, he decided to go home and talk to his brother and sister, and decide what was to be done.

By the time he returned home, it was nearly dawn, and the calls of the muezzin for the first prayer were sounding from the mosque minarets. Meanwhile, Mehr-un-Nisa woke, and, finding the box was open and Shadr-ad-Din gone, was struck full of such great disquiet that she wept. It was just then that Kamr-ad-Din returned, and, finding his sister distraught, was filled with sorrow, for he thought it was on his account that she wept.

But he hugged Mehr-un-Nisa, calmed her down, and they told each other all that had happened since Kamr-ad-Din had left the previous evening, but nothing would be gained by repeating it here.

“It is clear,” Kamr-ad-Din said, “that our brother has gone alone to secure the golden bird. He may well fall into trouble, so it is necessary that I follow after him without delay.”

“We will both go,” Mehr-un-Nisa said. “For it is impossible to journey safely alone in the world of ghouls and jinni, as the old woman had told me; and I am already consumed by worry about our dear brother’s fate. If some evil befalls you, too, I shall have nowhere to turn.”

Kamr-ad-Din was not happy, but reluctantly agreed; and, smearing their eyes with ash from the box, which Mehr-un-Nisa then concealed in her clothing, the two of them ventured out into the street.

And in the street, which at this hour should have been largely empty, they saw...


At this point, Shahrazad saw the approach of dawn and discreetly fell silent.

But when the one thousand and eleventh night had come,



When Kamr-ad-Din and Mehr-un-Nisa came out into the street, they saw crowds of creatures, jinni and ifrīts, ghouls and nameless demons, all rushing back and forth. The hearts of the brother and sister sank at the sight, and they drew comfort from each other’s presence. Then they looked up over the rooftops of the transformed town, and saw the mountain range on the horizon, and standing out among the hills one so tall and thin that it resembled a needle of rock which pierced the heavens. And all around it, they saw what looked like a cloud, which they knew to be the birds the kādi’s daughter had talked about and which Mehr-un-Nisa had herself seen earlier flying above the town.

“How will we ever find the golden bird among all of those?” Mehr-un-Nisa wondered aloud.

“We must first seek our brother,” Kamr-ad-Din declared. “Only once he is safe can we think of the bird, for his fate is more important.” So saying, he took his sister’s hand, and the two began to make their way through the streets towards the mountains beyond the plain.

Now we shall return to Shadr-ad-Din, and what he had done after leaving his sleeping sister and going out into the streets.

He wandered for a time through the town, which had been so transformed by the ash that in the half-light he could not at first get his bearings. Then, at last, he found himself on a street which was still somewhat recognisable, and which led outside the town. The street, however, was so full of hideous monstrosities that those he had passed through looked almost normal by comparison.

But Shadr-ad-Din was no coward. Taking the name of Allah quickly, he began to walk briskly down the street, and eventually found himself at the one of the town gates, which lay open even at this hour.

“Wait, young man,” someone said, just as Shadr-ad-Din was passing through this gate. He turned and beheld a woman so old and shrivelled up that she seemed no more human than the monsters which passed all around.

“Young man,” this creature said, in her ancient voice, “tarry a moment, and tell me where you are going, for it is not safe on the plain for such as you.”

“Old Mother,” Shadr-ad-Din replied politely, “I seek the golden bird with emerald eyes, which dwells on the mountain like a needle on the other side of the plain. I will take it to the kādi’s daughter Star-Of-Morning, that she might set my brother free from the snare in which she has bound him.”

The old woman laughed, a noise like rustling paper. “Young man,” she said, “you will never find the bird among all those which live on that mountain, unless you take my help, for you are young and foolish. Are you willing to take it?”

Shadr-ad-Din was offended. “Thank you, Old Mother,” he said proudly, “but I will manage on my own. I have never yet found a task which I could not manage once I had put my mind to it.”

The old woman laughed again. “In that case, young man,” she said, “go, and may Allah go with you. But remember one thing. Once you begin to climb the mountain, pay no heed to any voice you might hear, even if it seems to you to belong to someone dear to you. And, however thirsty or hungry you may be, on no account eat of the fruit or drink of the streams on the mountain, for, if you do, a terrible fate will befall you. What more you do is up to you.” Still laughing, she turned away and vanished through the gate.

 Frowning, Shadr-ad-Din made his way across the plain, which was just beginning to be touched with the light of dawn. Against the eastern sky, he could see the outlines of the mountains, among which the tall narrow one was that he sought. Now he realised that his hope of returning before his sister woke was impossible, for the mountains were much further than he thought, and the narrow one was much higher too. He began to regret the pride which had made him reject the help offered by the old woman, but it was too late now.

“Besides,” he said to himself, “I heard what the old woman said about not listening to voices or eating fruit or drinking water on the mountain. So I think she has helped me all she could, already.” So saying, he strode off across the plain.

On the way he saw a she-jackal, small and wounded, who was lying in the dust, bleeding profusely and crying piteously. “I suppose this is the she-jackal Star-Of-Morning was talking about,” Shadr-ad-Din said to himself. The animal reached up to lick his hand, but he stepped over her and moved on. “I seek the bird,” he said to her over his shoulder. “You must wait.” The she-jackal howled mournfully in reply.

The sun was already high in the sky when Shadr-ad-Din came to the foot of the mountain. He was weary, tired and thirsty by this time, and when he looked up and saw the great spire of the mountain towering overhead, he realised it might take him all day and more to climb high enough to reach the heights around which the birds flew. And there were so many thousand birds, of all colours and shapes and sizes, that it might take him days more to find the one he wanted, and as long again to capture it.

“There is no power or might save in Allah!” he said. “However long it takes, I must find the strength to go on, for my brother’s fate is in my hands.” So saying, he began to climb the slopes.

As the hours passed, he grew more and more weary, hungry and thirsty, and it still seemed to him that he was as far away from the birds as ever. Finally, he climbed over a rocky ridge and found what seemed to be a vision of Paradise itself.

It was a beautiful, verdant valley, where a clear stream ran crystal between rows of trees heavy with fruit, and the air was sweet and intoxicating as wine. Shadr-ad-Din threw himself down wearily by the bank of the stream, only to rest for a moment, as he told himself. But his hunger and thirst and weariness were so great, and the fruit so ripe and sweet-scented, that he forgot the old woman’s warning and longed to bite into the succulent flesh of one, and wash it down with a little of the water. “Just one will not do any harm,” he said to himself, and plucked one of the fruit, and bit into its tender sweetness. And, instantly, he was transformed into a statue of stone.

In the meantime, down in the city, Kamr-ad-Din and Mehr-un-Nisa had also managed to find their way to the same gate, and just s they were leaving it, the old woman came up to them.

“My dear young people,” she said, “tell me where you are going, for I may be able to help you.”

“Old Mother,” Mehr-un-Nisa replied politely, “we are looking for...”


At this point, Shahrazad saw the approach of dawn and discreetly fell silent.

Then Dunyazad rose from her place beside the bed. “Sister,” she said, “your words are sweet and pleasant to the ear. I would like very much to hear what happened next to Kamr-ad-Din and Mehr-un-Nisa.”

“Little one,” Shahrazad said, “I could tell you of that and more, tomorrow night, if this splendid monarch wished and agreed to spare my life till then.”

“Ya Allah,” the King Shahryar thought, “I shall not kill her till I hear the rest of this magnificent tale!” And, taking her in his arms, he spent the remainder of the night in pleasant diversions until the break of day.

But when the one thousand and twelfth night had come,



It is related, O great king, that Mehr-un-Nisa responded to the old woman as follows:

“Old Mother, our brother Shadr-ud-Din has gone looking for the bird with golden feathers and emerald eyes, that he might give it to the daughter of the kādi, so that she will free our brother Kamr-ad-Din here from her wiles. But we are worried less some misfortune befall him, and we would find him and then together seek the golden bird.”

“Your brother had come this way,” the old woman said. “If you would look for him, and the golden bird, though, you will require my help, for without it you will never find what you are seeking, and you will be inevitably lost, as I am certain your brother is already.”

The brother and sister looked at each other. “Old Mother,” Mehr-un-Nisa said at last, “though we have little enough time, we would be most grateful if you would give us what help you can.”

“In return,” the old woman said, “I will want something valuable that you possess – the box of ash which my daughter, who had visited you, had given you. It was not hers to give, but mine, and I want it back.”

“You will have it,” Mehr-un-Nisa promised, “just as soon as you tell us what we need to know.”

The old woman nodded. “The golden bird with emerald eyes,” she said, “nests near the top of the mountain, just past a large white rock shaped like a camel’s hump. You will only be able to catch him between dusk, after he returns to his nest, and dawn, before he leaves it, for all day he will spend on the wing. Also, you will never be able to catch him without this.” So saying, she handed the girl a piece of cloth. “You must throw it over him, not neglecting to cover his head and eyes, and as long as the cloth is over him, he is yours. But beware lest you eat or drink of the fruit and water on the mountain, or listen to any voice which might call to you, for if you do, you will be surely lost.”

“If, as you say,” Kamr-ad-Din put in, “our brother has already come to grief, how may we help him?”

“The touch of the golden bird’s wing will heal any wound or sickness,” the old woman said.  “If you touch him with the bird’s wing, you will revive him. But you must find the bird first.” She rummaged in a bag at her waist and took out a two dark-green leaves. “Eat one of these leaves each,” she said, “and you will not be hungry or thirsty until you return home. Now give me my box. But, first, smear some more of the ash on your eyelids, lest what you have put is rubbed away, and you can no longer see what you must see.”

“Thank you, Old Mother,” Mehr-un-Nisa said, and handed over the box after putting some more of the ash on Kamr-ad-Din’s eyelids and hers.

“Allah go with you, my children.” The old woman made a gesture of blessing and turned away, and Mehr-un-Nisa and Kamr-ad-Din, each chewing on one of the leaves, walked across the plain towards the needle-like mountain.

Then they saw the she-jackal, bleeding in the dust and crying piteously, and the heart of the girl was moved. Kneeling on the sand beside the hurt animal, she promised that she would bring the bird and give it to the kādi’s daughter, so that she in turn might give it to the jackal, who might then heal her wounds and her sick child beside. She would have tried to dress the jackal’s wounds as best she could, but when the hurt animal tried to lick her hand she found that it could not, nor could she touch it.

“We can’t help you until we fetch the bird and give it to Star-Of-Morning,” she told the jackal. “But we will do it, if you are patient just a little longer, I promise.” The wounded animal whined and tried vainly to lick her hand.

“Let us get away,” Kamr-ad-Din, who was waiting impatiently, said. “The time is growing short.” But when Mehr-un-Nisa looked back, she saw the she-jackal looking after her hopefully.

All day they climbed the mountain, but though they were weary, after eating the old woman’s leaf they did not know thirst or hunger. At last, just before dark, they found the valley where the stream ran between the trees laden with fruit, and here they found Shadr-ad-Din, but he was merely a stone statue.

Then Mehr-un-Nisa wept bitterly, though she was careful not to touch her eyes so as not to wash away the ash. And Kamr-ad-Din, seeing what had befallen their brother, decided that it would be better if he went alone up the mountain to find the Golden Bird, for he decided that it would be too dangerous an undertaking for their sister. So, while she was still immersed in grief, he silently stole away and carried on up the mountain.

For some time he climbed steadily, and then he began to hear voices around him. Some of them laughed and mocked at him, but others cried out to him to stop a moment to help them, for he was their only hope in their troubles. But, remembering what the old woman had said, he ignored the voices and moved on.

But, just as darkness was falling, he heard Mehr-un-Nisa’s voice, calling from down the mountain. “Brother,” she called. “Do not go on and leave me behind like this. Wait for me, so that I might catch you up, and we might go together up the mountain.” And, forgetting the old woman’s warning for the moment, Kamr-ad-Din turned back to look for his sister, and was instantly turned into a statue of stone.

Meanwhile, far down the mountain, Mehr-un-Nisa had controlled her tears for her brother Shadr-ad-Din and, finding Kamr-ad-Din gone, she realised what had happened. Filled with unhappiness and foreboding, she followed up the mountain, ignoring all the voices she heard around her, and soon enough found her brother, but he too was merely a statue of stone.

“There is no power nor might save in Allah!,” Mehr-un-Nisa said. “But this is no time for grief. I must find the golden bird all by myself, then, because now everything depends on me, and on me alone.” Fighting down her emotions, she passed by the statue and went on up the mountain, while the voices called around her, and beseeched and hectored. Among these voices she heard those of both her brothers, and even the voice of the woman who had visited her at home and given her the box of ash. But she turned a deaf ear to them all.

All night she climbed up the mountain, stumbling over sharp stones and slipping on loose pebbles, until her feet were bleeding and her limbs crying out with fatigue, but at last – just before dawn – she arrived at the rock shaped like a camel’s hump. And, beyond, there was a large nest, on which the golden bird sat, its head tucked under its wing, fast asleep. Quickly taking the cloth the ancient woman at the gate had given her, she threw it over the bird, making sure to cover its head and emerald eyes. The bird did not resist or struggle as she picked it up and bore it down the mountain through the dawn.

When she came to the statue that had been her brother Kamr-ad-Din, she touched it with the tip of one of the bird’s wings, and instantly the stone was transformed into flesh and blood once more. Then the two embraced, and, finding their way down the mountain, they came to the valley where the other statue was; and at the touch of the golden bird’s wing, Shadr-ad-Din was returned to life as well.

Rejoicing at being together again at last, the three siblings returned to the town, entering their home just as night was falling, the golden bird still covered by the old woman’s cloth. And then, as before, Mehr-un-Nisa made her way to the kādi’s house, and bribed the eunuch a dinār to let her into Star-Of-Morning’s private quarters. The young woman was waiting impatiently, and at the sight of Mehr-un-Nisa she rushed forward.

“Have you got it?” she demanded. “As Allah lives, if you have not, I will enslave your brother again tomorrow, for I have heard that his master is hard by the city and will return sooner than expected, and I have no time to lose.”

“Mistress,” Mehr-un-Nisa said, “I have the bird here, under this cloth; but pray do not remove the cloth until the she-jackal touches her puppy with the bird’s wing, for without it the bird cannot be controlled. And,” she added, “before I give it to you, please release my brother completely from your spell, for I have done as I promised.”

“It is done,” Star-Of-Morning said. “Inform him that he is free. Also, tell him that I shall visit him at his shop tomorrow, but he need have no fear of the visit.” Taking the bird, she turned away, and Mehr-un-Nisa went home, there to wash the ashes away from her eyes. For the first time in days, all the three siblings slept well and deeply.


At this point, Shahrazad saw the approach of dawn and discreetly fell silent.

But when the one thousand and thirteenth night had come,



In the morning, when Kamr-ad-Din prepared to go to the shop, Mehr-un-Nisa insisted on going with him, and Shadr-ad-Din too. So it was that all three went to the shop, and the other merchants marvelled to see them all there.

Towards noon, Star-Of-Morning came to the shop. But this was a very different Star-Of-Morning than the imperious and splendid lady who had come earlier. She came alone, on foot, and dressed in such simple clothes that she might have been mistaken for one of her women. And, entering the shop, she threw herself on Mehr-un-Nisa’s neck and wept as though she would never stop.

“Mistress,” Mehr-un-Nisa said, at last, “please do not distress yourself so, for your tears distress us too, who are no more than your slaves.”

“Never say that you are slaves again,” Star-Of-Morning said in reply. “You must never say anything of the sort, ever. Ask anything of me and I am prepared to give it to you, even if it be my life.””

“Why do you say so?” Mehr-un-Nisa asked.

“Listen,” Star-Of-Morning said. “I shall tell you what happened last night.


“After you left me, Mehr-un-Nisa, I took the bird, and by certain means known to me, I visited the world of my dream. And there I found the she-jackal stretched on the ground, in the act of gasping away the last moments of her life. Quickly, I knelt beside her, and touched her shoulder with the tip of the bird’s wing. Instantly, the wounds on the jackal’s body disappeared, and she shook her head and sat up as if unable to believe her eyes and senses that she was recovered and well again.

“Then she looked at me, quite clearly asking me to come along with her, to where her sick child lay. So, still carrying the bird covered by the cloth, I followed her through the plain until at last she arrived at her den, where the puppy lay. And we believed we had come just too late, for the puppy was no longer breathing.

“And such was the sorrow of the mother jackal then as I thought my heart would rend asunder at her grief, which she could not even express in tears like a human, but must needs roll on her back on the plain, and bite at the earth while howling piteously.

“So great was her grief, in fact, that I could no longer bear to look upon her, but, for want of anything else to do, I turned to the puppy’s body and picked it up. And, holding it in my hand, I felt the tiny flicker of a pulse in its throat.

“At first I could scarcely believe that there might still be a chance, so that I hardly dared touch the little body to the golden bird’s wingtip. In fact the she-jackal was so mired in her grief that she did not see me do it at all. But the puppy jerked in my hand, twitched, sat up, and poked a cold wet nose into my finger.

“I can scarcely tell you of the incredulous joy with which the mother jackal greeted her child, whom she had thought lost forever. Even now, I can hear her cry of delight, which shivers down my spine and sets the hairs on the back of my neck a-tingling. I wish you could have heard it too, for it is impossible to describe in words.

“Leaving the mother and child to their reunion, I removed the cloth from the golden bird, released it to fly back to its mountain, and returned to my home. For the first time in many years, when I slept, I no longer saw the dying, wounded mother jackal. Instead, I saw her and her puppy, tumbling over each other in ecstatic play. And when they saw me, they rushed to me and licked my hands and face.

“I have come today,” Star-Of-Morning said, “to tell you that the gratitude of the jackals belongs properly to you, not to me. I am unworthy of it. I also want to tell you that I have released from their bondage all the men I have destroyed, and I shall make restitution for their losses.

“As for you,” she said, looking at Mehr-un-Nisa. “If you are anything, you are my sister, and these your brothers are my brothers. That is what I have come to say, if you will accept it.”

“We accept with humility and pleasure,” Mehr-un-Nisa replied.

And so the three siblings became four, and after the old kādi’s death they lived together in the mansion, where they passed their lives in great happiness and well-being, until they were visited by the Separator of Friendships and the Destroyer of Time..


Sister,” Dunyazad said, when Shahrazad had finished, “that was a truly magnificent tale, one of the best you have ever told.”

“It is as nothing,” Shahrazad responded with a smile, “to those I could tell, if the glorious monarch permitted. But let them wait for tomorrow night.”

And the King Shahryar nodded his permission, and drew Shahrazad into his arms; and, outside, the sky began to lighten with the first hint of dawn.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2012


1 comment:

  1. For the reading of this tale my garden is untended and trumpet vine grows unchecked in my lily bed. Fabulous writing.


Full comment moderation is enabled on this site, which means that your comment will only be visible after the blog administrator (in other words, yours truly) approves it. The purpose of this is not to censor dissenting viewpoints; in fact, such viewpoints are welcome, though it may lead to challenges to provide sources and/or acerbic replies (I do not tolerate stupidity).

The purpose of this moderation is to eliminate spam, of which this blog attracts an inordinate amount. Spammers, be warned: it takes me less time to delete your garbage than it takes for you to post it.