The third night of Sharazad’s spectacularly dysfunctional marriage sees the start of a new story, the tale of the fisherman. This protagonist is an elderly man struggling to support his wife and three children. For whatever reason, he’s in the habit of casting his nets no more or less than four times each day. One day it seems he has a fantastic catch, only the weight turns out to be a dead donkey; on the next cast the net is even heavier, and this time it’s an old jar full of mud. In a failure of fairy tale tradition, the third try is no luckier. By now desperate, the fisherman addresses God directly, pointing out he only casts his net four times every day and he really, really needs to catch something – please?
Well, the prayer gets him no fish. Instead he pulls up a brass bottle with a lead seal, but that’s all right, because a bottle of this type will earn a good price at market. Before selling it on, the fisherman wants to be sure there’s nothing even better inside, so he prises off the seal and tips the bottle upside down.
Who could have predicted that was a bad idea?
Smoke comes pouring out and coalesces into a gigantic, foul-tempered ifrit, who announces his intention to kill his rescuer on the spot. “For this good news, leader of the ifrits,” the fisherman replies, heavily sarcastic, “you deserve that God’s protection be removed from you, you damned creature. Why should you kill me and what have I done to deserve this?” The ifrit explains that he joined a rebellion against King Solomon, nearly two thousand years ago, and that Solomon didn’t like that much. With the help of his vizier, the king sealed him in the brass bottle and the ifrit has been trapped ever since. Planning what he’d do upon his release is the only way he stayed sane. For the first hundred years he promised himself that whoever freed him would be granted lifelong wealth; a century later, he decided to bestow gemstones. If the fisherman had rescued him four hundred years after that, he would have been offered three wishes. But eighteen hundred years in a tiny bottle has left the ifrit very anti-humanity. All the fisherman gets now if the choice of how he’s to die.
The fisherman pleads with logic and proverbs, but the ifrit’s having none of it, so the fisherman resorts to cunning. Considering the size of the bottle, he scoffs at the idea the ifrit could ever have fit inside. Here Sharazad breaks off, seguing into Night 4, but you can probably guess where this is going. The ifrit is offended at the lack of faith in his flexibility, squeezes back inside the bottle and gets stoppered. “Ask me how you want to die,” the fisherman shouts maliciously. He announces his intention to throw the bottle back into the water and build a house at the seashore to prevent anyone ever fishing it out again. The ifrit tries to pretend the whole thing was a joke; the fisherman ain’t buying it. “You and I are like the vizier of King Yunan and Duban the sage,” he reflects, and diverts into that story:
In the land of Ruman there was once a king called Yunan, famous for his multicultural armed forces but afflicted with leprosy. Despite all the doctors attending him, the disease keeps a firm grip. One physician who comes to try his luck is Duban the sage, a man as well-educated as his nickname implies. Coming before the king in his fanciest clothes, he declares he can cure the leprosy without medicine or ointments. Yunan promises him glorious riches if he can make good on his word, plus best friend status forever.
Duban rents a place in the city and fills a polo stick with drugs. Seriously, this is his plan. He then goes to the king and explains why he should play with it. The idea is that the drug will enter through the skin and by the time the game is over, the cure will already be at work. Much as it sounds like a late night informercial, the method is effective. The healed king showers his new friend in gifts and can’t see enough of him. This arouses the jealousy of one of Yunan’s viziers, who goes to the king claiming Duban to be an enemy of the throne in roundabout politic speak. The king is confused. “If you are asleep, wake up,” the vizier snaps, a lot less diplomatically. “I am talking about the sage Duban.” Yunan is appalled at the accusation and defends Duban eloquently, recognising that it’s envy rather than evidence behind the vizier’s claims. It reminds him of the story of King Sindbad.
Yes, folks, segue within a segue! And there Sharazad breaks off again.
Night 5 begins with the story of King Sindbad. A Persian king with a passion for hunting, his most constant companion is a falcon he raised and trained himself. When they go hunting together, he has it wear a tiny golden bowl around its neck, so that it can drink in style. On one such trip the king’s men trap a gazelle. He threatens anyone who allows it to escape with death, but as he bends to study the animal, it leaps lightly over his head and bounds away. His men struggle to contain their amusement.
Furious, the king sets off alone in pursuit. His falcon blinds the poor animal and the king finishes it off, tying the body to his saddle. He then turns for home, but the sun is high overhead and the king is very thirsty. He sees a tree dripping liquid and gathers some in the falcon’s bowl, offering it his bird before drinking himself. The falcon knocks it over. Twice more the king tries to make it drink and fails. Raging at its stubborness, he cuts off its wing. The bird jerks its head in a last ditch effort and the king realises that the liquid he was collecting was actually poison dripping from the mouths of sleeping vipers. Understanding makes zero difference. The falcon dies anyway.
King Yunan’s vizier is left unmoved by the tale. “Sindbad acted out of necessity and I can see nothing wrong in that,” he insists, ignoring every single thing he’s just heard, possibly because he spent that time thinking up a comeback story of his own.
In his story there is another passionate hunter, a young prince in the care of an untrustworthy vizier. One day as they are out hunting the prince sights an enormous beast and his vizier encourages him to go kill it, so of course the prince ends up getting lost in the desert. He’s not the only one – he soon comes across a crying princess who fell asleep out here and was left behind by her companions. The prince gallantly lifts her up onto his horse so they can be lost together.
On their way through the desert, they pass a ruined building and the princess asks him to stop so she can go inside and relieve herself. I’m pretty sure that’s the first canonical bathroom break in any fairy tale I’ve read, but it’s actually a ruse – she’s a ghula (a female ghoul), not a princess at all, and her children live in the ruin. The prince is coming to check she’s okay when he hears her promising the kids ‘a fat young man’ to eat. There is no opportunity for escape. She comes out to find him standing there, shivering, and asks what’s wrong. “I have an enemy,” he tells her. The ghula offers helpful suggestions for dealing with this enemy, like bribery and prayer – which when I say it like that, do sound a slightly odd combination…The prince calls on the kindness of God and the ghula lets him go. Just like that.
The prince goes home and tells his father about the vizier’s terrible advice, upon which the king has his courtier killed. This, according to Yunan’s vizier (there are so many viziers this week) is the way to handle all problems – when in doubt, execute someone. Yunan is swayed. “Don’t you see that he cured your disease externally through something you held in your hand,” the vizier continues, “so how can you be sure that he won’t kill you by something else you hold?” His suggestion is for the king to betray Duban before Duban betrays the king.
Won over by selective storytelling, Yunan sends for his physician. There is an exchange of poetry. There is a lot of poetry in these stories, most often used as ornately moralistic punctuation to greetings or arguments. The general tone of Duban’s chosen verses is that he’s grateful for the king’s favour and that life will probably work out okay, if God wants it to. The king is unmoved. “I have sent for you,” he says, “in order to kill you and take your life.” Those things are different? Duban refutes any suggestion he’s a spy and begs to live. “If this is how you reward me,” he cries, “it is the crocodile’s reward.” The king then wants to know the story of the crocodile. Duban says he’s too upset to tell it properly while the threat of execution hangs over his head. A courtier who wants to hear the story – or possibly believes in the sage’s innocence, I don’t know – stands up to support Duban’s release, but no luck, the king has been thoroughly convinced of Duban’s guilt. The sage changes tactics. As his last request, he wants to settle his affairs and present the king with a very special book. It contains ‘innumerable secrets’ and if three lines are read from the third page, Duban’s severed head will speak aloud. The king is very excited by the prospect of such a book. “When I cut off your head, will you really talk to me?” he asks, totally missing the fact Duban can also talk with his head attached. Like he’s doing RIGHT NOW.
Duban goes to his house and returns with a book and a plate of powder. His severed head is to be placed in the powder. He is duly executed and the king obeys his instructions, rewarded when Duban’s head opens its eyes and tells him to open the book. For all his paranoia, Yunan is not a clever man. To prise apart the pages, he has to lick his finger, and the book has been laced with poison. As he is racked by fatal convulsions, Duban recites grimly satisfied poetry. So the king falls dead and the fisherman (remember him?) tells the trapped ifrit this is divine justice.
Thus concludes night no.5, and this week’s episode. Return next Tuesday for talking fish!