Sharazad’s first story is about a wealthy merchant. I actually already know this one! The protagonist rides out one day to settle a business matter and in the hottest part of the day stops to eat and rest. When he’s finished eating his bread and a date, he throws the date stone in a random direction; whereupon which a huge ifrit appears (that being another type of djinn, or jinni) and tells the merchant “Get up so that I can kill you as you killed my son.” The merchant is bewildered. Turns out, when he threw that stone away it hit the ifrit’s son in the chest with sufficient force to kill him. The merchant babbles some poetry about time, which does not move the ifrit in the least, then begs to be allowed to settle matters for his family. The ifrit permits this, if the merchant will return to the same spot on New Year’s Day.
So the merchant goes home, tells his family about his impending execution, settles his business affairs then returns as he promised to the tree where this mess began. As he sits there sobbing, an elderly man approaches, leading a gazelle on a chain. Asked the cause of his tears, the merchant tells everything. “By God, brother, you are a very pious man,” Mr Gazelle says, “and your story is so wonderful that were it written with needles on the corners of men’s eyes, it would be a lesson for those who take heed.” Which is all a way of saying he’s sticking around to see what happens next.
Before long another old man shows up, bringing with him two black dogs. He too decides to stay. Then a third old man, this one accompanied by a grey mule, joins the party – so that when the ifrit finally gets there he’s quite outnumbered. The first of the old men offers him the story of how he acquired this gazelle in return for a third of the merchant’s blood, and the ifrit agrees. So the old man begins his story.
The gazelle is his cousin and also his wife. After they’d been married for thirty years without having children, he took a mistress and had a son with her. He also apparently expected there to be zero resentment on his wife’s part. When the boy was fifteen, his father went away on a business trip and came back to find mother and son both gone. His wife said the former had died and the latter had run away. This is a huge lie; she’s been practicing sorcery most of her life, a fact she’s effortlessly kept from her husband. At the first opportunity she turned her rival into a cow and the boy into a calf.
For a year the old man went into mourning until the following Id al-Adha. This is also known as Eid al-Adha, and is a Muslim festival that marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. It being customary at that time to make a sacrifice, the old man calls for his herdsman to bring a cow and the slave he kept as a mistress is brought before him. Transformed as she is, he doesn’t recognise her, but she’s all too aware. She cries out and the old man is shaken, asking the herdsman to bring another cow, but his wife insists it be this one. The old man has his herdsman make the kill instead. It’s horrific.
And it’s not over yet, because though the cow looked plump and healthy, she falls to skin and bone under the herdsman’s knife. A better sacrifice is required, and of course the next candidate is the enchanted calf. It rolls on the ground at the man’s feet, weeping. Already regretting his decision to kill the cow, he balks again, but his wife is determined that her revenge be carried out to the full. He goes to the calf with the knife raised…
This is where Sharazad stops. Shahriyar can’t have her executed without finding out what happens next, so for the first time in three years he lets a bride live past dawn. During the day he goes about the business of being king, then returns to the sisters to hear more of Sharazad’s tale.
As I don’t have a homicidal king breathing down my neck, I’ll keep going.
The old man couldn’t bring himself to kill the calf and had it sent back to the herd. The next day, the herdsman comes to see him. His daughter has been trained in magic and when she saw the calf yesterday she started laughing and crying at the same time. “This calf you have with you is our master’s son,” she told him, “who is under a spell laid upon him and his mother by his father’s wife. This is why I was laughing, but the reason why I wept was that his father killed his mother.”
The old man’s first reaction is not horror, but joy – he’s more concerned with his living son than the dead mistress. He goes straight to the herdsman’s daughter, asking if she can restore the boy. She will, on two conditions: if the boy will become her husband, and the sorcerous wife can be transformed too so the girl will be safe from her. The old man agrees. She takes a bowl of water, recites a spell over it, then sprinkles the water over the calf and returns him to the shape of a young man. He tells his story and marries the herdsman’s daughter, straight after which she turns the old man’s wife into a gazelle.
This all happened some years ago – the old man’s daughter-in-law has recently died, his son is travelling in India and the old man is looking for him, which is how he happened upon this particular spot at this particular time. The ifrit considers such a story worth a third of the merchant’s blood, and when the old man with the black dogs offers the same bargain, agrees to that too.
The dogs are the second old man’s elder brothers. When their father died he left them a thousand dinars apiece and each brother opened a shop. Before long, though, the eldest brother sold his shop and went off travelling. A year later, he shows up on his youngest brother’s doorstep as a beggar. The same length of time has seen Merchant No.3’s profits steadily improve, so he not only feeds and clothes his brother, he gives him the money to set up another shop. All goes well for a while, until the middle brother insists on going travelling too. His life duly falls apart, he comes home in rags, and Merchant Three once again uses his own profits to put a brother back in business.
They learn NOTHING. Having run their new businesses for a while, they take it into their heads to go travelling again and want their brother to go with them this time. He sensibly points out it didn’t work out so well before, but after six years of pestering he finally gives in. A check of the other brothers’ accounts proves they don’t have the money for a voyage, so he has to front up cash for the whole venture himself. Again. He also prudently buries half his wealth to make sure he has the means to reopen all their shops should the voyage go badly.
So the brothers buy trade goods and set off. At first all goes swimmingly; they sell their goods at a vast profit and are about to head off again when they come across a beggar girl on the beach. She approaches the sensible brother (smart girl) and asks if he’s a charitable man. “I love charity and good deeds,” he replies, “even if they give me no reward.” This being the answer she wanted, she joins him on the ship. He’s exactly as good as he promised, but his brothers are all kinds of awful. Jealous of Merchant Three’s fortune, they come into his room one night, drag out both him and his new wife, and toss them overboard.
Their mistake. His wife is really an ifrita and she is now HELLA ANNOYED.
Her first priority is saving her husband; she carries him to the nearest island. She then intends to kill the brothers and despite the merchant trying to talk her out of it, is in too great a fury to be appeased. She carries her husband back to his own country and shortly after he’s set up shop again, he comes home to find his wife waiting with the two black dogs. “I sent a message to my sister,” she explains. “It was she who transformed them, and they will not be freed from the spell for ten years.” The ten years now being almost up, the old man was on his way to get them disenchanted when he came upon this place at this time. The fascinated ifrit admits that’s worth another third of the merchant’s blood.
It’s now time for the third old man’s story. Does it surprise anyone that his mule is really his wife? Being a family member to any of these people seems like a health hazard. Anyway, having been off travelling for a year, this old man – also a merchant! – returned home to find his wife in bed with a black slave (I am so hoping we meet a black character who is not a slave and SOON). The merchant has no chance to go all Shahriyar on her, because she’s a sorceress too. Throwing water over him, she turns him into a dog and kicks him out of the house.
He takes refuge with a butcher, who also happens to have a magic daughter. “This dog is a man over whom his wife has cast a spell,” she says, “but I can free him from it.” With that she sprinkles the dog/man with water, speaks a few words and restores him to his real shape. His first act is to kiss her hand in gratitude; the second is to request help in dishing out karmic justice. Armed with a jug of spelled water, he goes home to where his wife is sleeping and transforms her into a mule.
For confirmation of his tale, the old man turns to the mule, who nods glumly. The ifrit grants him the last third of the original merchant’s blood, and the second night of Sharazad’s storytelling comes to an end. The king is so captivated he delays her execution for another day so he can be assured the merchant survives. Sure enough, with the blood debt cancelled out by the bizarre life stories of total strangers, the merchant is permitted to go on his way.
“This, however, is not more surprising than the tale of the fisherman,” Sharazad remarks. The ifrit is not the only killer with a weakness for stories. The king has to know what’s so exciting about the fisherman. So Sharazad tells him. Tune in next week for seaside shenanigans and an anecdote battle!