Trigger warning: references to domestic abuse, sexist language and racism
Welcome to the sixth night of Sharazad’s storytelling, in which we finally get back to the fisherman and the murderous ifrit he has trapped in a bottle. The fisherman repeats his intention of hurling the bottle into the sea, thereby sentencing its prisoner to indefinite eons of unholy boredom.
“Spare me,” cries the ifrit. “If I treated you badly, do you for your part treat me well, as the proverb says: ‘You who do good to the evil-doer, know that what he has done is punishment enough for him’. Do not do what Umama did to Atika!” The fisherman has never heard of these people and wants to hear their story. Using the same ploy as the sage Duban from last week’s segue, the ifrit says he can’t possibly talk about Umama and Atika while imprisoned.
The fisherman is infuriated. He points out, quite accurately, that the ifrit was unmoved by any of his pleas and would totally have killed him anyway. The ifrit promises to never do that again. If the fisherman only releases him, he will be made a very rich man.
This tactic has more of an effect. Making the ifrit swear to their bargain, the fisherman opens the bottle. The ifrit’s first act on being released is to grab that bottle and hurl it as far out to sea as he can, convincing the fisherman he’s about to get murdered. “This is not a good sign!” he wails. Lucky for him, the ifrit is a supernatural being of his word. He laughs at the fisherman’s pants-wetting panic (too much information, Sharazad) and tells him to start walking.
They leave the sea and the city behind for some spontaneous mountain-climbing. On the other side of the mountain is a plain and in it, a pool. The ifrit wades into the water, urging the fisherman to follow. The man realises the pool is full of colorful fish and quickly casts his net. He catches four fish – one white, another red, one blue and the last yellow. The ifrit tells him to present this catch to the king, then asks to be excused so he can go see how the world’s changed over the last eighteen hundred years.
Back in the city the fisherman brings the fish (still alive, swimming in a bowl of water) to the king’s palace, where apparently people can just walk in with presents. The king is pleased and hands over the fish to his vizier, who in turns gives them to the new cook. She’s a slave girl and it is her first day at work. The king is ‘putting his hopes in her artistry and cooking skills’, which sounds a bit ominous. The fisherman is happy though, paid off with four hundred dinars. He hurries away before anything can go wrong.
And go wrong it certainly does. While the slave girl is trying to cook the fish, the kitchen wall splits open and a beautiful young woman loaded with jewellery steps out. She’s carrying a bamboo staff. Stabbing it into the frying pan, she demands, “Fish, are you still faithful to your covenant?” The cook faints. Barely noticing, the woman repeats her question and the fish say ‘Yes’. Actually, they have more to say than that, undeterred by the fact they are dead. “If you return,” they recite, “we return/ If you keep faith, then so do we/ But if you go off, we are quits.” The beautiful woman flips over the pan with her stick and sweeps back through the wall, which closes behind her. When the cook comes to, she sees the fish burnt black and faints again. She’s having a bad day.
The vizier comes down and prods her with his foot until she explains what happened. Luckily he believes her. Ordering the fisherman to bring another catch to the palace, the vizier has the cook fry them up as before while he watches. The wall splits open once more and the beautiful woman returns to interrogate the fish.
At this moment Sharazad breaks off. Night number seven gets underway with the king being informed about the bizarre happenings in his kitchen. He wants to see for himself, so more money is thrown at the fisherman and the vizier puts a fresh pan on to fry. It seems the slave girl wanted out of the whole situation. The king soon sees why when the wall splits open; instead of the mystery woman, a towering black man come striding out to check these fish are keeping to their covenant, flips over the pan and leaves again without a word to his audience.
Fascinated, the king calls in the fisherman for a fourth time to quiz him about the source of the fish and insists on being led to the mountains with a procession of troops. Not one man amongst them has ever seen this pool before, or the plain around it either. Whoever the king asks, in fact, swears they’ve never heard of the place. The king declares he’ll not enter his own city again or do any of that pesky ruling stuff until he gets to the heart of the mystery. When his soldiers have set up camp against the mountains, the king sends for his vizier to explain his plan: he’s going out alone to investigate once dark falls and wants the vizier to cover his absence with the all-purpose excuse of sudden illness.
He picks a direction and walks for two days straight, until at last he sees a black stone palace appear in the distance. The gate is open, but no one responds to his knocking. Thinking the palace must be empty, he walks inside, calling out a few times just to be sure. For an abandoned building, it is furnished very lavishly and presumably well-maintained, as a golden net strung across the central courtyard keeps birds trapped there – the gorgeous lion-mouthed fountain would be considerably less attractive under those conditions if not regularly cleaned.
The king realises his mistake when he hears a voice reciting sad poetry. It sounds like evidence for a domestic abuse case. Going to investigate, the king finds a beautiful young man in a nearby room, seated on a low couch. He wears a silk gown and a gem-studded crown. At the sight of a stranger in his house, his first reaction is to apologise. “Your dignity deserves that I should rise for you, but I have an excuse for not doing so.” The king is not concerned about formalities, narrowing in on his purpose: what the hell’s going on with those fish.
The young man starts sobbing. He recites more poetry about how unhappy he is but that God must know what he’s doing. The king asks what’s wrong; the young man pulls aside his robe and reveals that from the waist down, he’s solid stone. Appalled, the king wants to know how this happened. “There is a marvellous tale attached to the fish and to me,” the young man replies, “which, were it written with needles on the corners of the eyes, would be a lesson for all who can learn.” That’s the second time that particular phrasing has been used and I don’t know exactly what it means, but I like it.
Anyway! The young man begins his tale. His father was king of the Black Islands and after a very respectable reign of seventy years the young man succeeds to his throne. He marries his cousin, who is so desperately in love with him that she will not eat or drink when he isn’t there. They have been married for five years when the pattern of their daily lives hiccups just slightly; the young king comes into their apartments while his wife is at the baths and, thinking him to be asleep, a pair of slave girls start gossiping within earshot. Turns out they hate their mistress because she’s a cheat, drugging her husband to make sure he sleeps while she goes cavorting with her boyfriend.
Confused and distressed, the young king decides to test their story. That night he pours away his usual evening drink and only pretends to sleep. Soon his wife rises and spits at him, “Sleep through the night and never get up. By God, I loathe you and I loathe your appearance. I am tired of living with you and I don’t know when God is going to take your life.”
So…that sounds bad. She also steals his sword. Following her through the palace gates and the markets beyond, the young king sees her spell open the city gate and go to a brick hut. He climbs onto its roof, where I think there must be a chimney or something because he can see what’s happening inside. Below him lies a black slave in tattered clothes. He is suffering from leprosy and his lips are described in very unflattering terms as being sort of swollen, but he manages to talk just fine, snapping at the queen for keeping him waiting while his cousins are off having fun. She tries to reassure him, but he accuses her of ‘playing fast and loose’ and calls her a ‘stinking bitch’, ‘vilest of the whites’. Blatant racism and sexism all in the same scene, isn’t this fun!
The queen starts crying. Managing to soothe him with her misery, she strips and gets into bed – and the young king reacts like literally every other male monarch so far, jumping down and swinging his backup sword.
This is Sharazad’s cliffhanger. A tad risky, I’d say, given her husband’s history, but he’s addicted now and needs to know what happens next. The story continues next week with sorcery and sarcastic poetry.