The Sharazad Project: Week 8

Night fourteen begins with the princess Sitt al-Husn performing sorcery to restore the second dervish to his human shape. She takes a knife inscribed with Hebrew characters and cuts a circle in the ground; over it she writes and speaks all manner of spells, until darkness descends and the ifrit is summoned against his will. Everyone else shrinks back, but the princess holds firm. “There is no welcome for you,” she tells the ifrit, and he changes shape into a lion. “Traitress,” he snarls, “you have broken our covenant and the oath. Did we not swear that neither of us would oppose the other?” “You accursed ifrit,” she snorts, “am I bound to one like you?” In case you have not guessed yet, Sitt al-Husn is THE BEST FOREVER.

And it gets better. Still shaped as a lion, the ifrit leaps at the princess and she turns one of her own hairs into a sword, cutting her enemy in two. Sadly this does not kill him. His head becomes a scorpion, and the princess becomes an enormous snake. They take shape after shape, battling with beaks and teeth and claws, until the ifrit takes the form of a pomegranate and scatters his seeds across the palace. The princess shapes herself as a rooster and pecks them all up, save one that falls into a fountain. This becomes a fish. Reforming herself as a larger fish, the princess dives in pursuit. A terrible scream echoes through the palace and from the water lurches the ifrit, fire pouring from his mouth. Behind him rises the blazing princess. Smoke fills the air as they fight. The king feels deeply guilty for forcing his daughter into such a battle and wishes he’d never found the ape at all. Perhaps these words attract the ifrit’s attention, for suddenly he’s breathing flame at the king and the dervish. The princess intervenes, but a spark catches the dervish’s eye and blinds it.

Even in the middle of a fight for her life, the princess shouts prayer, and proves once and for all that she is TOO AWESOME by reducing the ifrit to ashes. She asks for water, but not for herself – no, she’s still focused on the task at hand. Reciting spells over the cup, she throws it over the ape/dervish and restores him to human form. She then tells her father that she has not long left to live. Her victory has come at a great cost. She has time to utter one more prayer before a black spark leaps to her face and she falls to ashes.

Sitt al-Husn, you deserved so much better. Rest in peace.

The dervish feels bad about it, like that’s any use. He joins the princess’s devastated father in a hair-tearing frenzy of grief, which ends with the poor king fainting. When he recovers, his officials and advisers have arrived and are in dire need of explanation. On his orders, an enormous memorial is built over Sitt al-Husn’s ashes, while the ifrit’s are blown away with no ceremony at all. The king is so sick with grief it seems he will die, but after a month he begins to recover and summons the dervish to deliver some harsh truths.

“Young man,” he says, “I passed my days living at ease, protected from the calamities of time, until you came here. How I wish that I had never set eyes on you or your ugly face, for it is you who have brought me to ruin. Firstly, I have lost my daughter, who was worth a hundred men. It was you whom my daughter rescued at the cost of her own life. Secondly, I was injured by fire; I lost my teeth and my servant died.” He acknowledges these things are not really the dervish’s fault, but he can’t bear the sight of him any more and wants him gone. Now.

The dervish does not know where to go next. Grateful just to be alive, he shaves off his beard, puts on a hair shirt and sets off travelling again, his plan being to reach the caliph and explain his circumstances – just like the first dervish. Thus he came to Baghdad, encountered his doppelgangers, and arrived at a rather frightening party. The lady of the house is satisfied with his tale, permitting him to go free, but he joins the growing audience instead as the third dervish begins his story. “They both were victims of fate,” he says sorrowfully, “but I brought this fate upon myself.” Some time ago he was a competent king with a passion for sailing – his vast collection of ships including a fleet of merchant vessels and an armada of warships, plus all the pleasure boats his heart could desire. During a cruise around his kingdom of islands, his company sail into a ferocious storm. When at last it clears, they are very lost.

A lookout climbs to the crow’s-nest to look for land. He sees fish floating on the water and in the distance a shape that looks sometimes black and sometimes white. The captain goes into a state of mad panic, wailing, “Good news! We are all dead men; not one of us can escape.” Everyone follows his lead except for the king, who has no idea what’s going on. The captain explains: that shape on the horizon is the Magnetic Mountain. Its powerful influence on the ship’s iron will tear the vessel apart. According to legend, a brass dome stands upon the dreaded island’s shore and within it a brass rider. He is somehow responsible for the deaths that surround this island, and they will only stop if he falls from his horse. Um. I thought it was magnetic influence? Is it magic magnetism? Let’s go with that.

The captain goes back to sobbing while his crew give each other their final words in the hope someone might survive. Through the night, the ship drifts closer to the mountain; come morning, they are right on top of it. Every scrap of iron is torn from its place, flying towards the magnetic rock; the ship shatters and everyone is thrown into the water. Most drown. The dervish/king is of course one of those who survive, clinging to a plank that is eventually blown ashore. There he finds a track carved into the mountain.

Night fifteen begins with the king climbing it, praying frantically. When he reaches the summit in safety, he gives ritual thanks for God’s mercy and takes refuge in the legendary dome. While he sleeps, he has an unusually informative dream.

“Dig beneath your feet,” he is told, “and you will find a bow of brass with three lead arrows, on which are inscribed talismans. Take the bow and the arrows and shoot the rider on top of the dome, for in this way you will rescue people from great distress.” Once the statue has fallen into the sea, the king is to bury the bow where he found it and wait on the mountaintop for a wave so vast it will rise to his level. Upon it will be a boat and a brass man – a different brass man, who will carry the king to safety. There is only one condition: until he departs the boat, the king must not speak the name of God.

Guess what he goes and does. No, go on, guess.

In his defence, it is an involuntary exclamation of relief as he comes within sight of land. No sooner has he cried out a grateful prayer than the boat tips him out and leaves him to swim the rest of the way. Like the stubborn sort he is, he prays the whole time. Thrown ashore by a violent wave for the second time in under a fortnight, the king squeezes out his clothes and trudges off to figure out his position. It’s not good. Trapped on a small island, he’s very relieved to spy a ship in the distance and climbs a tree the better to watch its approach.

When it docks, ten slaves emerge, each carrying a spade – and at this point I’ll repeat, GIVE US A BLACK CHARACTER WHO IS NOT A SLAVE, it isn’t that hard. All ten walk to the centre of the island and start digging. The king sees them uncover a trapdoor, then travel back and forth from the ship with supplies that range from butter and honey to sheep. Clearly someone’s settling in for the long haul. On their final trip back to the trapdoor, two passengers accompany them – an elderly man and a handsome boy. ‘Beauty was brought to be measured against him,’ thinks the king, ‘but bowed its head in shame.’

They remain underground for an hour or so. When the rest of the party emerges, the beautiful youth is missing. The king waits for the ship to depart, then climbs down from his tree and opens up the trapdoor. Within is a luxurious chamber, decorated with silks and fresh flowers, in which the young man sits fanning himself. He’s alarmed at the intrusion, but once convinced that his visitor is human he’s quite happy to talk. To find out why he’s tucked away in a secret bunker, return next Tuesday for the rest of the third dervish’s tale.

1 thought on “The Sharazad Project: Week 8

  1. Pingback: Read-Along: The Sharazad Project (Part 5) | Alex Hurst

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