Saturday, 12 January 2013
Thursday, 10 January 2013
Once upon a time, in a far and distant land,
There was a mountain, and on it a forest
And in the forest there was a tree.
On the tree there was a twig,
On the twig there was a leaf
And on the leaf there was a caterpillar
Eating away, busy as can be.
In the caterpillar’s gut there was a bacterium
Which looked around, and said one day
“It seems to me beyond dispute
It all seems quite clear to me.
"I am the centre of creation, all this
This land, this mountain, this forest
This tree, this twig, this leaf, this caterpillar –
All were created with me in mind
All exist merely to benefit me.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013
But when the one thousand and fourteenth night had come,
THE STORY OF THE KING MUDASSAR AND THE CUP OF CRYSTAL
O King of Time, beyond the mountains of Samarkand and the great desert, there is a range of hills so high and remote that it hardly hears a human voice. Even the caravans which pass through the desert, laden with silks from China and the gold of Byzantium, do not tarry there, for it is a desolate place, with no water or vegetation except thorn bushes too hard and dry for even the camels to eat.
But high among the hills, on a plateau where there is no sound but the howl of the wind and the call of the jackal, are the ruins of a town. Once, it was a great city, with streets full of the bustle of people and carts, and the call of the muezzin sounded regularly from the mosque minarets. There were wells full of crystal water, orchards heavy with figs and pomegranates, and the air was so full of scents that it was said that it was like the most fragrant wine.
For many years the caravans had stopped at the city on their way across the desert, so that the souks were busy with trade and the merchants’ khāns always full. For many years, the merchants’ gold had flowed into the city, and it had grown rich and prosperous despite being surrounded only by desert.
On the throne of the city, at the time of this story, sat the king Mudassar. He was of the great line of Abbās Ali, and his ancestors had ruled long and fairly wisely. But Mudassar was young and wished for glory, and he could not find any way of achieving it. There were no enemies for him to conquer, for all other kingdoms had either sworn him fealty or were so far away as to make it impossible for him to invade them, and this weighed heavily on his soul. And this made him petty, vindictive, and cruel, so that the people grew uneasy and the markets and streets seethed with unrest.
One evening, the king Mudassar sent for his wāzir, whose name was Sikandar. This Sikandar, an old man and wise, was known to have knowledge of the arcane arts of magic, but never used them for his own benefit. He went to the palace and found the king in his pavilion, sunk in a most pensive mood, sitting at his window and staring out into the night.
“Wāzir,” said the king, “I have a gloom upon me, for I have achieved nothing of the glory of my father, and his father before him. There are no enemies for me to conquer, no great feats for me to perform, and I am afraid that when I depart this world, the people will forget me and talk of me no more.”
The wāzir Sikandar stroked his beard, considering. “King of Time,” he replied at length, “I have been your father’s wāzir, and his father’s before him. As an old man who has seen much, I can assure you that it is not merely military glory which make a monarch great, but, more, keeping them in peace and tranquillity. War and conquest have their time and place, but when they are not necessary, they are merely foolish.”
But the king Mudassar would not be lifted from his despondency. “Wāzir,” he said, “I command you to use your knowledge to find me a way of achieving the glory I crave, for I wish to be king of the world, so that there will never be anyone to equal me. If you do not do this, your head will not be safe on your shoulders.”
The wāzir Sikandar bowed. “Sire,” he said, “in that case, give me three days in which to find you what your heart desires. But, I must warn you, the dark arts are not for casual dabbling, for they have a price to be paid, and this price may not be one any mortal can afford.”
The young king shook his head dismissively. “Let me worry about that,” he said. “You have your three days. Go now, and waste no time.”
“There is no power or might save in Allah,” the wāzir said. Shaking his head at the monarch’s folly, he returned to his house, deep in thought. And although he was old and not particularly afraid of death, he had no idea of how to fulfil the king’s desire.
Now the wāzir had a young and beautiful daughter, who was as well versed in the magic arts as himself, and when she saw him return in such a sombre mood, she threw herself at his feet, kissed his hands, and asked him what it was that made him look so pale and gloomy.
When the wāzir had told her all, she threw back her head and laughed. “Father,” she said, “give me leave to seek something for the king to pursue, which will save your life and at the same time teach him a lesson, for he is surely in need of one.”
“I am afraid for all of us,” the wāzir replied. “I have no wish for the king’s folly to consume the kingdom.”
“It will, anyway, if things go on as they are,” the girl told him. “The people are restive, and have grown so weary of the king’s caprices that it only needs a spark to set them into rebellion.”
The wāzir nodded, sadly. “I give you permission, on the condition that it involves no harm to yourself.”
So the girl departed to her rooms, and there used her knowledge of the hidden arts to seek out what she wanted. On the third day she went back to her father, and asked permission to speak.
“I have found what we needed,” she informed him. “You must go to the king, and this is what you should tell him...”
So the wāzir returned to the king’s presence, and found him in a towering rage. “Have you found something for me?” he asked. “If you have not, make your peace, for your head will answer for it.”
The wāzir kissed the earth between the king’s hands. “King of Time,” he said, “there is an object which, once you have it in your possession, will give you mastery over the earth and water, and over the sun, moon, and stars. But it is far away and most difficult to reach.”
“Wherever it may be,” the king snapped, “I will have it found and brought to me.”
“It is a cup of crystal,” the wāzir replied, “as clear as transparent as the air itself, and as light as a feather, for all that it is bigger than a giant’s fist. You must find the cup and drink from it, and the knowledge to do as you wish will be yours.”
“Wherefore is this magic crystal cup?” asked the king. “I shall send out an army to find it and have it brought to me at once.”
“I am afraid that is not possible,” the wāzir responded, “for you must go to it, alone and drink from it with your own hands, for it to have any effect.”
“Am I not a man known through the world for strength and courage?” the king demanded. “Do not kings far and wide tremble at the thought of my power? Surely such a puny task as going to this crystal cup is as nothing to one as me.”
The wāzir bowed low again. “If you are determined to proceed, O King, then this is what you must do...”
At this point Shahrazad saw the approach of dawn and discreetly fell silent.
But when the one thousand and fifteenth night had come,
It is related, O Great King, that the wāzir Sikandar spoke as follows to the King Mudassar: “King of Time, I entreat you once more not to do this; but if you should be determined, go alone at midnight to the well at the north-western corner of the dīwan. Climb down into the well, for it will be quite dry at that hour. At the bottom you will meet a guide, who will conduct you through passages that wind through the nether worlds, where the jinnī dwell, until you reach your goal. But you must remember this: do not, under any circumstances, seek to speak to the guide, or to look upon his face; for, if you do, you will be lost forevermore.” He paused. “Also, you must drink from the cup and leave it where it is; you must not bring it with you, for one can only drink from it once in a lifetime.”
“I will do as you say,” replied the King Mudassar, and, enjoining the wāzir to keep his absence from the city a secret, he went to his room to prepare. Dressing himself in a robe of cloth of gold, buckling on his scimitar, and equipping himself with a coil of rope, he left the palace by a secret entrance and made his way to the dīwan. The well at the north-western corner was shrouded in darkness, but the King Mudassar was not discouraged. Taking the name of Allah, he tied the end of the rope round the pillar at the corner of the dīwan and let himself down into the well.
As he descended into the well, he found it to be not as dark as he had expected, for a strange grey light came from the wall. The lower he descended, the stronger the light grew, until when he reached the bottom he found it as bright as a full moon night. And, just as the wāzir had said, the bottom of the well was dry, with not a drop of water to be seen.
The king had hardly let go of the end of the rope when he saw that he was not alone. To one side, there stood a figure so wrapped in tatters of rags that it was difficult to decide if it was human, let alone a man or woman. Two eyes shone like mirrors in the blue glow, peering from between pieces of cloth. Extending a hand wrapped in mouldering cloth, this apparition beckoned the king to follow, disappeared into the wall.
Looking more closely, though, the king discovered that there was a slit in the wall, like a low doorway, and that the grey light was shining from it. Gripping his scimitar tight, he bent his head to clear the top of the door and followed the mysterious guide.
Passing through the door, the king found himself in a passage, narrow but so high that when he tilted back his head he could not see the ceiling, which was lost in darkness. The mysterious ragged guide, not looking back, was already walking away, and the king had no alternative but to follow.
For so long did he follow the guide that the king lost all track of time, and could not indeed tell if it was still night in the city he had left, or if day had already come. And as he went further, the passage grew narrower still, and began to twist and turn, until he could hardly tell up from down, and almost began to think of turning back. But he had no idea which way to go even if he did try and return to the city, so he continued behind the wraithlike form of the guide, which looked ever fainter and less substantial.
The king’s legs had begun to grow weary when the guide led him into a cavern so huge that the further side could not be seen. It was covered in water, and only here and there marked by humps and spires of stone which rose from the surface. And here the guide hesitated not a moment, but plunged into the water, and motioned for the king to follow.
But the king Mudassar looked at the water, which was murky and filthy as the pit of Hell itself, and no longer able to contain himself, he forgot the wāzir Sikandar’s advice. “Stop, creature,” he shouted to the guide, taking his scimitar from its scabbard. “In the name of our lord Sulāimān ibn Daud, I demand you tell me where you are taking me, or I will not move another step.”
But the guide turned to him once more, and merely motioned him, impatiently, to follow. But the king was furious, and without stopping to reflect on what he was doing, he reached out to rip the rags covering the thing’s face.
But the creature reached out with one of its skeletal hands, and gripped the king’s wrist; and it pulled him so hard that he fell into the water, whereupon the apparition pushed him under the surface until he could no longer hold his breath, and fainted.
When he regained consciousness he was lying on his back on one of the platforms of stone which stuck out of the water. When he sat up and looked around, he found that he was alone. Just as the wāzir had warned, the guide had forsaken him; nor could he see which way to proceed, for in all directions the cavern extended until it disappeared in the shadows.
Hearing some faint noises, the king looked up; and, high above him, near the ceiling of the cavern, he could see great birds flying. One of these began to descend, and he became convinced, on seeing its gigantic size, that it must be a rūkh, of which travellers say that it can pluck an elephant away from the earth like an owl would a mouse. Seeing this terrible creature, the king felt his bowels turn to water, and grew assured that his last hour had come.
At this point Shahrazad saw the approach of dawn and discreetly fell silent.
But when the one thousand and sixteenth night had come,
O King of Time, the king Mudassar lay on the rock and saw the dreadful rūkh swooping down on him, and began to make his peace with Allah, for he was sure he was about to be devoured.
But though the king was young and headstrong, he was also valiant, and he had a sudden thought. Remembering certain travellers’ tales of their encounters with this frightful creature, he quickly stripped off his robe of cloth of gold. Placing it on the rock, he lowered himself into the water, and awaited the rūkh. The great bird swooped down on the glittering robe, and snatched it up in its claws. While it was thus engaged, the king quickly used his turban to tie himself to one of its legs, so that when it flapped aloft, the rūkh carried him along with it into the air.
The rūkh flew so high that it almost touched the roof of the cavern, and so high that the king could see all the great cave laid out below him, stretching to the furthest horizon. At length the bird came to rest on some high cliffs to one side, whereupon the king quickly untied his turban from its leg and hid in a crevice of the rock. The rūkh pecked at the robe, and finding it not edible, flew away.
The king then took up the robe and made his way down from the cliff. As he went, in the far distance he saw a great building of the purest white marble, with a dome of gold above it, around which rose strange twisted trees. It was a long way, and he was tired and weak with hunger and thirst, but he was afraid that if he tarried too long, the rūkh might return. So, without pausing to rest, he began climbing down the cliff. After many hours he finally made his way down to the plain and found himself not far from the building of marble and gold.
Seen from close, he found it was a palace; moreover, a palace so huge, and so grandly decorated with ornate carvings and inlays, that it exceeded by far the magnificence of the king’s own royal dwelling. But as he stepped through the open doors, he found it silent but for his own echoing footsteps, and without any trace of occupation.
The king walked deeper and deeper into the palace, along great corridors and through magnificently appointed chambers, until he became frightened at the emptiness around him, and also so overwhelmingly tired and hungry that he felt that he could not walk another step. But just then he smelt an aroma of food, such as he had not ever smelt before. Following the smell, he came to a great hall set around with twelve statues of young men – statues so wondrously wrought that they seemed almost about to speak to the king, and to follow him with their stone eyes. But the king Mudassar’s attention was taken up by a table in the middle of the chamber, which was laden with food as might have tempted the angels of Allah; pastries which melted on the tongue, and succulent fruit, as well as dishes so cunningly prepared that the king could not give them a name. He ate with relish until he could eat no more, and then drank from the goblets set around the table, of which there were twelve. He drank from them, one by one until they were quite empty; and then, replete with food and drink, he lay down on the floor of the chamber, wrapped himself in his robe, and fell into deep slumber.
In his sleep, he heard the murmur of many sorrowing voices; and finally they grew so intrusive that he opened his eyes. He found then that the statues around the walls had gathered around and stood looking down at him; and he saw that they were all strong, handsome young men, and that their eyes were full of sorrow.
“Unhappy man!” one of them exclaimed. “Why have you come here? And why did you eat of the food of the table, and drink of the goblet? For know that no mortal can eat or drink of it, and yet escape the fate which has befallen us.”
The king was surprised, but not afraid. “I have come a long way,” he said, gripping his scimitar, “and have, undoubtedly, a long way still to go. I have already overcome obstacles that might have killed any other man, and I have no intention of allowing myself to be stopped by anyone, be it man or jinnī. So, whether you be men or spirits, be assured that you will not stand in my way.”
The statue which had spoken shed bitter tears. “It is not us who threaten you,” it said. “We are merely sorrowing at your fate, for we were once all men like you, full of youth and vigour, but are condemned now to be in the state you see us now, for the rest of eternity.”
“I am a king,” the monarch replied, “and no ordinary man. Nor am I an ordinary king, for the realm I rule is the largest and most powerful the world has known since the time of our master, Sulāimān ibn Daud.”
The statue shook its head, still weeping piteously. “Know, young man, that we are all twelve of us kings and sons of kings, and we all considered ourselves to be no ordinary monarchs. And yet do you see us like this, unable to move or speak except in the world of dreams.”
“Pray tell me then,” the king asked, “how it is that this fate befell you, for then I may find a way of avoiding it myself.”
“Listen, then,” the statue said, sighing heavily, “for the tale I have to tell is so strange and fearsome that if it were to be written with a needle on the corner of an eye, it would still provide a lesson to the circumspect.” And, so saying, he began –
THE STATUE’S TALE
As I said, I was once a king, the ruler of a nation far to the north, where the trade routes of the world met; I ruled over fair cities, where the markets and the merchants’ khāns were ever full, and the poorest man dressed in robes that might have been the envy of nobles elsewhere. But ever was I discontented, for I wanted more glory for myself, and could not be happy with what Allah had given me.
Now among my harīm was a concubine from the isles of India and China, a slave skilled in all the arts of magic, and so learned in the sciences that not all the wise doctors of the kingdom but gave way to her in debate; and her name was Dew-Of-Morning. And she was every bit as perfect and beautiful as her name. Often, she would offer me advice, but it was invariably not advice I wished to hear, for she would urge caution and moderation in all things; and when I did as I wished, she would sigh with sorrow and turn her face away. And every time I went against her advice, things went badly for me, and yet I would pay no heed.
So things came to pass, that one day I looked around me and found my nation ruined, and my people in ferment; and I had to steal away in the dead of night to save my life, with only Dew-Of-Morning to accompany me. By great good fortune we managed to leave the city, disguised as a merchant and his slave, and by Allah’s grace we found a place on a caravan bound for Baghdad, where I hoped to be able to find help against my enemies.
But only a month into the journey, while the caravan was travelling through the great desert, we were caught in a sandstorm so great that for a week it turned day into night; and when it finally subsided a little, we found ourselves on foot, separated from the caravan, and completely lost. All around us were only the sands of the desert, and the winds had so shifted them around that we could not find our way.
For many hours we wandered, muffling our faces and arms with cloth to protect them against the wind and sand. The sky was so thick with windblown dust that we could scarcely tell if it were day or night, and we held each other by the hand for fear that if we separated for an instant, we should never find each other again.
By and by, the storm ended, but brought no cessation of our misfortunes; for we grew so hungry and thirsty that we thought there was no chance that we would survive, and prepared to render up our lives to Allah. But just as we were about to embrace each other and sink down on the desert sands for the last time, my beauteous companion saw a cloud of sand on the distant horizon, as is thrown up by the hooves of horses. And with renewed hope, we began to call out and wave, though our throats were so dry from thirst that at first we could scarce make a sound.
Soon the cloud was close enough for us to see that it rose from the hooves, as we had hoped, of a troop of horses, and we began to raise up our voices even further, in praise of Allah. But the words froze on our lips as the horses drew close around us; for their riders were bandits, as cruel and merciless as the desert itself. In moments they had seized us, thrown us across their horses, and ridden off with swords held at our necks so we dared not move.
After a long time the bandits drew to a halt, near a small oasis, which consisted of a well surrounded by rough huts and camel-hair tents; and I realised that this was their base. Now we had been so muffled by the storm that the robbers had quite failed to realise that Dew-Of-Morning was of the fairer sex. By Allah’s grace, they thought she was a boy, or it might have gone hard with her at that moment. Instead they contented themselves with throwing us into a hut and setting a guard outside the door.
I confess that at the time our outlook seemed so bleak that I would have almost preferred that we had died of thirst and hunger in the desert, but my companion strove to comfort me as best she could. “Be of good cheer, my master,” she whispered, “for where there is life, there is hope; and it is surely Allah’s doing that he has sent these desert brigands our way. It must be in his will that we find ourselves here, and he will show us the way forward.”
“Then be it as Allah wills!” I said, and fell into the arms of my companion, where I sought such comfort as could be found in the circumstances in which we found ourselves.
As the days went by, we got to know our captors better. Among them was one in particular, a gigantic Badawī of the most villainous sort, who missed no opportunity to jeer at us and threaten us with the direst of consequences to come. At the same time, he dared not do us physical violence, for in our enfeebled state it might have done us irreparable harm, and these brigands did not wish to reduce the value of their merchandise – for we soon realised that though they had originally intended to attack our caravan, they had been thwarted by the sandstorm, and so they intended to make what profit they could by selling us as slaves. The Badawī insisted on telling us this, just to enjoy our suffering at the thought of losing our liberty.
“And I shall ensure the two of you are sold to separate owners,” the Badawī said. “Enjoy what time you have left together, for you shall never see each other again.”
“Do not do so,” Dew-Of-Morning replied, “for what you do to hurt those who have done you no evil may harm you, as it harmed the farmer who found the brass pot in the field.”
“What farmer is that?” the Badawī asked. “Tell me the tale, O youth, and if I find it to my taste I might change my mind about selling you separately.”
So Dew-Of-Morning drew her clothes around her, the better to conceal her form, and began
THE TALE OF THE FARMER AND THE BRASS POT
Know, O Badawī, that once, in a land so far away that it would be pointless to name it, there lived a farmer who was very poor. All day he toiled in the fields, and at the end of the harvest he had hardly enough to feed himself and his family, let alone pay the taxes the king’s men demanded of him. Finally one year a drought came on the land, and the fields were so parched that not a blade of green showed through the cracked ground.
The farmer thought of what to do, and having no other option, decided to dig a well. Night and day he laboured, and little by little dug into the stony ground, yet he did not find water. But one day, when he was on the point of falling with exhaustion, his spade knocked on something in the earth, and after a great deal of effort he managed to dig out a great brass pot, large enough to hold as much grain as he might grow in an entire year, and have space for more besides. This pot was sealed with a lid which was so tightly affixed that the farmer could not easily get it off, but when he rolled the vessel out of the hole he could feel something rattling faintly inside.
Taking up a mattock which he had used to break the stony ground, he was just about to attack this seal when someone called out to him, and, looking round, he saw a withered old crone standing by his side. “Good farmer,” this ancient said, “do not, I beseech you, open this pot – for inside it dwells a jinnī who is positively the master of wickedness, one so evil that the night and day alike tremble in fear of him. A long time ago he was sealed up inside to protect the world from his depredations, but if he gets out, he will ravage the world and there will be no way of dealing with him.”
“Old Mother,” the farmer responded, “I am a poor man, and I earn my living from the sweat of my brow. If there is anything of value in this pot, I will sell it in the market and perhaps be able to buy food for my family. If there is nothing, I can at least sell the pot, and thereby still feed my wife and starving children.”
The old woman smiled sadly. “I see you do not believe me,” she said. “but if you come with me to the old tower on the other side of the hill, I will give you enough gold so that you and your family will not starve.”
“I will come with you,” the farmer said, and, leaving the pot next to the hole, he followed her to the old tower, which was falling to ruin. There the old woman uttered some magic words and passed her hands in front of a wall, whereupon it parted to show a flight of stairs leading into the earth. “Follow me,” the old woman said, and led him down into the darkness.
At this point Shahrazad saw the approach of dawn and discreetly fell silent.
But when the one thousand and seventeenth night had come,
It is related, O King of Time, that in the tale the slave Dew-Of-Morning told the foul Badawī, the farmer hesitated a moment when bidden to follow the old woman down into the depths of the earth. But he was young and strong, while the woman was weak and old, so he pushed his fears aside and followed her down the steps.
The stairs went down a long way, but at the bottom they opened into a room so vast that the farmer could not take in its full extent in one glance. And it was so full of the finest jewels – glittering emeralds, diamonds blazing like fire, sapphires blue as the sky, and rubies glowing like the sunrise – that he stopped, amazed, and his breath almost stopped in his chest.
Then the old woman said, “Take whatever you wish from here, and it will serve your needs for a lifetime; but leave the pot where it rests, in the earth, and cover it up again. Swear it on the heads of your children.” And the farmer, so swearing, unrolled his turban and filled it with as many of the jewels as he could carry, selecting the biggest he could find close at hand.
“Go now,” said the old woman, “and dig the pot back into the ground, lest someone else find it, open it and let the foul jinnī out. And the farmer, agreeing, went up the stairs and finally into the open air. But when he turned to see if the old woman had followed him out, he saw that the opening in the wall had closed, and no matter how he searched he could not find it again.
Then he set off towards his field, for he was conscious of his promise to put the pot back into the ground; but as he went an evil thought came into his head.
“If the old woman was prepared to give me so many jewels in exchange for leaving the pot alone,” he thought, “what more might the contents of the vessel not be worth! It is possible that she was lying about it, and that there is no jinnī inside, but objects of inestimable value.” And the more he thought about it, the more he grew certain of this, so that he quite gave up all intention of keeping his promise to the woman.
Arriving at his field, then, he went straight to the pot, which lay where he had found it, and was about to attack its sealed lid again when he heard a voice at his shoulder. It was the old woman. “Unhappy man!” she exclaimed. “Is this how you keep your promise? Remember that you swore on the heads of your children.” But the farmer, whose mind was inflamed with greed and visions of such wealth that he could think of nothing else, hardly heard her. Seizing the mattock, he was about to begin on the pot when the woman, in a last attempt to stop him, tried to grasp his arm. In reply, he turned to her in a savage fury and struck her with the turban-load of jewels he was carrying. In an instant, the old woman and the turban with jewels disappeared in a puff of dust, leaving only a faint noise behind, like the echo of a distant scream.
The farmer was only momentarily disturbed by the loss of the precious stones. “The contents of the pot will give me much more,” he thought, and began prying the lid away. After a while he had fairly loosened it, and with a hollow clang it fell away. Instantly, black smoke began pouring out of its mouth, which rose to the sky before forming itself into a gigantic jinnī, who looked down at the quaking farmer with eyes red as blood.
“Thank you for setting me free,” the jinnī roared, in a voice that made the ground quake. “But your greed which made you do it is also the end of you.” And with one hand he picked up the unfortunate farmer and dashed him to the ground, sending his soul to the hereafter to await Allah’s judgement.
Thus saying, Dew-Of-Morning looked at the Badawī. “Just as the farmer’s greed ended up blinding him and led to his destruction,” she said, “so should you beware lest your desire to harm us who have done you no evil rebound on you. O excellent Badawī, think carefully of what you should do.”
“Very well,” the Badawī said, after a great deal of thought, stroking his beard, “I will set you free. But beware lest our paths ever cross again, for I shall certainly not spare you.” And that very night, giving us two old nags and a little food and water, he pointed us in the direction we should be going and bade us begone.
For many days thereafter we travelled through the desert, my lovely companion and myself, till our food and water were gone and both we and our horses were close to expiring; but at last we saw in the distance the walls and minarets of a town, and attained its gates before they were shut for the night. And there, in the marketplace, to our great joy we found some of the merchants who had been on the caravan we had been on. They had just finished their business and were going back to their own country, but they recognised us and made us welcome.
“We have also sold your goods, and made a profit of five on one,” they said, and pressed silver on us. “We were hoping that we should be able to find you safe, and pass on the money to your hands.”
Rejoicing at our good fortune, Dew-Of-Morning and I spent the night at one of the merchants’ khāns, and in the morning, after visiting the hammāms, we bought good horses and resolved to continue our journey; for behind us lay not only my old enemies who had usurped my kingdom, but the Badawī, who had promised to ruin us if he ever set eyes on us again. And, mindful that he would look for us along the main caravan routes, where other brigands would also gather, we resolved to go by another way.
For many days we journeyed south, until we had left the desert far behind, and found ourselves climbing through a series of heavily forested hills, so dark and gloomy that they might shelter entire nations of jinn and ifrīt. By day, the sun was so faint through the branches that we could scarcely see our way; by night, the cold was so intense that it seemed to freeze the marrow in our bones.
One day it so happened that we emerged from the forest to find ourselves on a high and desolate pass, with only bare cliffs around. Dew-Of-Morning and I were just about to congratulate ourselves on emerging from the pestilential forest when the sky grew dark above us, and an enormous rūkh swooped down and, snatching up Dew-Of-Morning from her saddle, flew away into the sky.
For a while I almost went mad with grief, beating myself with my fists on my face and head, while I bewailed the fate that had thus taken my lovely companion. By degrees, though, my senses returned to me, and remembering what I had heard of these terrible birds, I thought that if I could follow her to the nests where they lived, I might still be able to save her. For you should know that the rūkh do not eat their victims at once, but keep them alive in the nest, guarded night and day, until they should feel hungry.
Looking up at the sky, then, I watched another of the rūkh flying my way, and began to wave my arms and shout until it saw me. It swooped on me, too, and snatching me in its claws, bore me far up into the sky. Soon we were flying so high that night and day lost all meaning, and I almost fainted away.
When I gained full control of my senses I found myself in a great nest of broken branches, with the rūkh standing over me. I had bought a sword in the city, and, taking it out of it scabbard, I screamed and charged at the bird. Frightened, it flapped away.
I found I was on a cliff-top above a great cavern. All around me, I could see other cliffs, but not a single other nest of the rūkh anywhere. Wandering along the cliff tops, lamenting the loss of my beloved, I finally glimpsed a marble building with a golden dome. I made my way to it, and found myself eventually in this hall. Looking around, I saw...
At this point Shahrazad saw the approach of dawn and discreetly fell silent.
But when the one thousand and eighteenth night had come,
The statue continued telling the king Mudassar its tale:
I stood in this hall, looking around, and saw that the table stood in the centre laden with fruit and wine; and, in my exhaustion and despair, I ate and drank incuriously. I did not then pay any heed to the statues standing around the walls, of which at the time there were eleven. Then a fancy took me to wander further, and, after passing along innumerable corridors and up and down numerous staircases, I finally found myself in the very centre of the edifice, and standing under the great golden dome.
There was a spiral staircase winding upwards, wrought with gold and silver, and I walked up it, marvelling at all I saw, yet not forgetting to grip my sword tightly; for I knew that danger might well lurk anywhere in such a place as this. Finally, after a long climb, I found myself at the very top of the staircase, and confronted by a door of bronze and iron, inlaid with gems and ivory. I tried to open it, but it was locked fast; and I was just turning away, to continue my exploration elsewhere, when I spied a niche in the wall, and lying in it a long golden key.
In a moment I had unlocked the door, and, stepping through it, found myself in a hall which I thought must be copied from the very founts of Paradise. It lacked for no beauty of furnishing, the floors laid with the finest of carpets, the walls adorned with great hangings, while ornamented sculptures stood on pedestals and incense hung in the air, so sweet and heady that I almost forgot who and where I was.
Allah alone knows how long I might have wandered through this hall, losing myself in its many wonders, had I not heard, from beyond a door hung with a curtain, the sound of many women’s voices, wailing piteously; and, among these voices, I plainly recognised that of my own Dew-Of-Morning.
Rushing to the door, I threw aside the curtain and found myself in a small room at the very apex of the dome – a room lit only by small high windows, and bare of all ornamentation. In the middle of this was a cage of iron, and in it sat and lay twelve women, of such beauty that the hūris of Paradise themselves might have been envious. But most beautiful of them all was my own Dew-Of-Morning.
“Who has dared confine you here?” I exclaimed. “And how can you be set free?”
“You must flee at once, my master,” Dew-Of-Morning replied. “For this mansion is the abode of a most foul jinnī, whose pleasure it is to take the form of a rūkh and go out in the world, seeking prey. If he finds a man, he devours him in a nest on the cliff, be he prince or pauper; but if he finds a woman who pleases him, he brings her back to this room, and imprisons her. All these other women here, like me, were torn from their lovers and husbands and borne here to be his slaves. Flee, lest he come and kill you, or do some other foul deed.”
At this the wine I had drunk rose to my head, and I cried out in anger at the evil jinnī, striking the wall with my sword. “Be he the most fiendish abomination ever,” I cried, “I will defeat him, just as our master Sulāimān ibn Daud crushed the rebellious jinn under his boots.”
At this the very air trembled, and a cloud flew in through one of the high windows. The women cried out in fear, imploring me to flee, but still I stood my ground. And a moment later the cloud had vanished, and a jinnī stood in its place; a jinnī, moreover, so foul of visage and so full of malice, that I knew him at once to be the very same one of which Dew-Of-Morning had spoken of to our captor the Badawī, who had been imprisoned in a brass pot until the heedless farmer had greedily set him free. This terrible creature advanced upon me, and though I struck at him with my scimitar, he seemed not to be affected; instead, he seized me, with a grasp so firm and cruel that I fainted away.
When I regained my senses, I am as you see me now, a statue among other statues. There are twelve of us, all brothers in misery, for we are helpless here while our women are held in the cage above our heads, wailing in despair, yet we are unable to help them. And so cruel is the jinnī that for an hour each day he allows us to come alive, so that we can more completely suffer at our own humiliation and helplessness.
And now, you are here, and you have eaten of the jinnī’s enchanted food and drunk of his wine, which confuses the senses and drives one to folly; and surely the same fate awaits you as befell us, and tomorrow there will be thirteen places at the table.
Weeping, the statue fell silent. Mudassar thought for a moment at what it had said, and arose at last from his bed on the floor. “Even a jinnī grows careless,” he said, “and might be defeated, if one will only have intelligence and courage. Without one, the other is quite useless.”
“We implore you to leave at once,” the statue said, “for if you leave now, you might, by Allah’s grace, be able to escape before the jinnī returns and makes you as one of us.” But the king Mudassar paid it no heed, and buckled on his scimitar; and when he looked, the statues were as they had been, and stood silent and stony at their places near the walls.
The king Mudassar walked on through the corridors of the palace, until he came at last to the spiral staircase. Climbing it, he came to the door at the top, and, unlocking it with the key in the niche, he found himself in the hall with the carpets and incense. And, just as the statue had described, he heard the wailing of women coming from beyond the curtained doorway. Throwing the curtain aside, he entered the little room, in which stood the cage with its woeful captives. When they saw him, they began at once beseeching him to leave before the jinnī returned.
But Mudassar shook his head. “Ladies,” he said, “I have never stepped back from danger, and I would never be able to lift up my head in pride if I backed away from a jinnī as foul as the one who has confined you here. Which of you is Dew-Of-Morning?” When the woman – who was quite the most beautiful of all those lovely women – had identified herself, Mudassar told her that her lover and the others were below, immured in marble.
“You will never defeat the jinnī by your sword and the strength of your arm,” Dew-Of-Morning replied. “For he has told us, to torment and taunt us, that his life is not in his body, so no weapon can do him harm. Once he had been released from the great brass pot, he took care to seal it inside a marble globe, which he has secreted among the sculptures in the hall outside this room. Only if the marble globe is shattered will his life fly back into his body, and then only can he be defeated and killed. But even so, only the mightiest and most skilful warrior might hope to overcome him.”
“I have never yet met a foe who could vanquish me,” the king replied, and, bidding the women to keep his presence a secret, he went back into the hall. Once there he...
At this point Shahrazad saw the approach of dawn and discreetly fell silent.
And then little Dunyazad rose from her place by the bed. “Sister,” she said, “my heart fairly beats for the king and those poor maidens, especially Dew-Of-Morning. I can scarcely restrain my curiosity to find out what happened to them.”
“That I will tell you,” Sharazad responded, smiling, “if the good monarch here were gracious enough to spare my life, and I were to be still alive tomorrow night.”
Then the king Shahryar thought to himself, “By Allah, I will not kill her till I have heard the rest of this marvellous tale!” And, taking her in his arms, he did with her as was his wont, and they slept together till the break of day.
But when the one thousand and nineteenth night had come,
O King of Time, the king Mudassar returned to the hall, and began hunting among its many splendours for the marble globe. Long did he seek it, but did not find it, however hard he looked. But then, suddenly, there was a noise like thunder in the women’s room.
“I think a man has been here,” a terrible voice rumbled. “I have found traces of him below. If he has not yet run away, he will come up here, and then he will try to fight me; but, of course, he will fail, because my life is not in my body. So you women can bite the entrails of despair, for nothing can set you free.”
Mudassar had just succeeded in concealing himself behind a piece of furniture when the curtain was pulled aside and a jinnī entered the hall. His appearance was so foul that, even though the king had known something of what to expect, he gasped in shock, and for a moment feared that it had given him away. But the jinnī did not hear him, and walking heavy as a herd of buffalo, he made his way to a far corner. There, pushing aside a statue, he uncovered a secret recess in the wall in which lay a small marble globe.
“Here is my life,” the jinnī rumbled to himself, for he thought he was quite alone. “Here it will stay, safe from all danger, and I might do as I will.” Shaking with laughter, he tramped back to the women’s room.
The moment he had gone, Mudassar sprang forward, dragged away the statue, and, seizing the globe, hurled it to the floor. With a great crash, it shattered into pieces, and hearing the noise the jinnī came rushing back, his face twisted with rage. The king jumped forward to meet him, scimitar raised, and struck so hard that the vile monster’s head was cleaved right off his shoulders and his foul soul sped straight to his rightful abode in the dungeons of hell.
Then the doors of the cage fell open, and the women trooped out, giving thanks to Allah for their deliverance; and they embraced Mudassar, and praised him. And together they went down to the hall with the statues, but they were statues no longer; and twelve kings and princes, restored to their rightful forms, fell weeping with joy into the arms of the women they had despaired of ever seeing again.
Then, after she and her lover, the former king, had partaken of the joy of reunion, Dew-Of-Morning turned to Mudassar. “How can we repay you?” she asked. “You have given us our lives back, and there is no gift greater than that. But if there is any way we can help, please let us know, and if it is in our power, we will do all we can.”
Then the king told her of his quest for the crystal cup, not omitting how the monstrous guide had thrown him into the sea, and how he had come to the mansion, omitting nothing. But it would be pointless to repeat it here.
And the woman replied, growing pale, “O King, I am most afraid that you are the victim of a conspiracy by your wāzir and his daughter, whose name I have heard mentioned as a great sorceress, for all that she is so young. They intend you harm, for the cup they mention is one not easily attained, and the way to it is full of danger, which they hope will kill you. But even if you do attain the cup, it will not give you the power you seek. For I have heard that it is of such evil magic that no one knows what calamities it might bring to one who drinks of it. Your wāzir and his daughter intend you to disappear, and become a mere symbol, in whose name they can rule from behind the throne.”
The king grew grave as he listened to her. “But what can I do?” he asked. “I know not the way back to my own country, and even if I do return, I do not know what they have done in the time I have been away. Besides,” he added, “I have set out to find this cup, and I will not rest till I have found it. Even if I do not drink of it, I will destroy it, so that no other after me stands in the same danger as myself.”
Dew-Of-Morning looked at him with eyes full of sorrow. “You are proud and brave,” she said, “but you do not know the dangers that await you if you intend to seek the cup. Go, then, to the hills behind this mansion, and there you will find a cave shaped like a lion’s mouth. Enter that cave, but be sure not to touch its walls, though they will shine like diamond; for they are covered with poison which will strike you dead on the spot. At the far end of the cave you will find a wall of fire. Take the name of Allah and pass through it, and it will not harm you; but hesitate even a moment, and it will burn you to a cinder. Beyond that, on a dais, next to a little fountain which fills it with water, is the cup you seek – but before you reach it, you will have to fight and defeat a great serpent, which coils around the dais and is the guardian of the cup. If you win to it, though, remember my words with great care, and do not sip from it; more than that I cannot tell you.”
The king Mudassar thanked her, and, bidding farewell to the twelve happy couples, who had chosen to live together in the mansion, he set out to the hills, reaching them after a long and arduous march, he found the cave the woman had mentioned, with a mouth like that of a roaring lion. Inside, the walls were shining in all the colours of the rainbow, but the king remembered what Dew-Of-Morning had said and was careful not to brush against them even by accident. Then, coming round a bend, he saw the wall of flames, which licked hungrily at him and flickered with red and yellow flames. Without a moment’s pause, the king jumped through it, and arrived on the other side unharmed; and the fire roared behind him, in fury at being deprived of its prey.
Before Mudassar lay a small stone chamber, in the centre of which was a raised dais, and on it, glittering like diamond, was the cup he had searched for so long. But between him and it, coiling and hissing, was the gigantic serpent, the guardian of the cup. It opened its fanged mouth and lunged at him, so he was compelled to dart to one side and then the other, and even so found himself being pushed further and further back towards the fire. Nor did it seem to be hurt by his scimitar, which slid harmlessly off its scales as though it were made of wood.
Then the king took his courage in both hands and, waiting until the snake darted at him again, he threw himself to one side and, leaping on its back, he squeezed its throat with his mighty arms until it lay half-strangled, unconscious and inert. Finally, then he could climb over its loathsome coils and attain at last the object of his desire.
And when he laid eyes on the cup, it was of such beauty that Dew-Of-Morning’s words of warning quite fled away from his mind, for it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen; and when he took it in his hands, he marvelled at how light it was, though as large as a giant’s fist. And he was burning with thirst, after his long walk and the passage through fire and the fight with the serpent; so he filled it with the water from the fountain, lifted it to his lips, and drank of it till he could no more.
And then the world darkened before his eyes, and everything around him wavered like shadows in the flickering light of a candle; and, swaying, he fell. It seemed to him that he fell for a long time, until he struck the ground so hard that he cried out in agony.
Opening his eyes and sitting up, he found himself on a hillside in the light of the dawn; a hillside he recognised, for it was that above his own city. But where the city had been was only a ruined desolation, which filled the plateau, and only the cry of a jackal sounded where the voices of people had once been heard. And he knew that hundreds of years had passed by.
Then the king wept, and remembered the warning words of Dew-Of-Morning; and he wished that he could turn back time and dash the cup to the ground before it touched his lips. But such is the lot of man that one can never reach back and change the past.
It is said, o King of Time, that Mudassar still wanders the world, seeking he knows not what; perhaps the sound of a familiar voice, or something else that might soothe his fevered soul. But there is none who knows him, and those who mention his name only know of him as a cruel and long gone king of a distant land, whose rule ruined his nation beyond redemption; and whose throne was usurped by his wāzir at last. Perhaps he will find, someday, something which will bring him a measure of peace and happiness. But Allah knows all!
So saying, Sharazad fell silent. And Dunyazad wiped a tear from her eye, for she was much affected by the tale.
“Sister,” she said, “it is a sad and wonderful story that you have told, but it weighs heavily on my soul. I would be glad if you could tell me one which is lighter on the mind, and brings with it happiness and joy.”
“Yes, Shahrazad,” Shahryar added. “My heart too lies heavy, and is filled with the transience of glory and the folly of ambition. I wish to hear a tale which can drive the demons of unhappiness away. If you know any such, I command you to tell me of them.”
“As Your Majesty wishes,” Shahrazad replied. “But the night grows late, and it will soon be dawn. With your permission I will tell you such a tale tomorrow night.”
“Be it so,” the king replied, and took her in his arms, where he sought and found solace from the weariness filling him.
And so the night passed, and it came to a new day.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013