We return to night fifteen and the tale of the third dervish, who is at present a shipwrecked king in a plush island bunker, about to hear the life story of a mysterious beauty. “My father is a merchant jeweller,” the stunning youth explains, “who engages in trade with slaves, black and white, acting for him, sailing to the furthest lands with his goods.” So not all the slaves in this story cycle are black. That’s…an improvement? Of sorts.
One night this merchant dreamed that he would have a son, but that he would not long keep him. When the good part of his dream came true, he threw parties and fed the poor as thanks for such a gift – then he summoned pretty much anyone who could cast a horoscope, to investigate the baby’s future. There was good news and bad news. When the merchant’s son turned fifteen, the brass rider of the Magnetic Mountain would fall and the archer to topple it would pose terrible danger to the boy. If, however, the boy should survive for fifty days after the event, the danger would pass and his life would be a long one.
Being a good dad, the merchant created a refuge for his son to retreat to in this time of crisis, little suspecting the prophesied archer would sneak in the second his back was turned. “I was the man who shot the rider,” the king thinks, “but by God I shall never kill this youth.” He offers to stay on as a companion and protector throughout the fifty days. It is not stated outright in the text, but it definitely feels like the king has a crush. Weeks pass easily with luxurious meals, comfortable conversation and games of draughts. On the last day of fate quarantine, the king goes to prepare his friend a snack of sugared melon juice, only he cannot find a knife. “It is on this high shelf above my head,” the youth tells him, and the king reaches for it – but he slips and falls. The knife goes through the boy’s heart.
It’s such a stupid, awful accident. The king is devastated. Sharazad continues his story in night sixteen, as the first rush of grief abates and he realises the danger in his own position. It is the last day of the youth’s confinement; his father is returning for him, the ship already approaching. The king buries the trapdoor in earth and climbs a tree to conceal himself. He hears the screams of grief as the youth’s body is discovered. His poor father goes into a deep faint and when he comes around it is only to weep and rip at his beard. The poetry he utters over the boy’s body is desperately sad. I called him – but the silent voice preceded me./ My son, would that your fate had not arrived./ How may I rush to ransom you, my son,/ With my own life, were that acceptable?/ I say: he is the sun, and the sun sets./ I say: he is the moon, and moons decline…/I cannot do without you. None can take your place. I rarely quote the poetry from this book because there is so much of it and it is rarely directly relevant to the plot, but this is beautiful. Too old and fragile for such a shock, the merchant dies beside his son.
Grieving for the double tragedy, the slaves carry both bodies into the ship and sail away. The king climbs down and returns to the underground chamber. “I see the traces,” he recites, looking at the youth’s abandoned possessions, “and so melt with longing,/ Weeping in places where they used to dwell.” With no way off the island, he must stay in the bunker. After a month of this, however, he sees the water between his island and the mainland is beginning to dry up. I have no idea how. Is this a tide thing? Why has it never happened before? In time all that’s left is a stretch of shallow water, through which the king can wade. That’s by no means the end of his problems: there are treacherous sand dunes on the other side of the water. When a light catches his eye, he chases it towards human habitation. It is not the fire he expected – the building he finds is a palace with a brass door that shines so brightly it looks, from a distance, like flame. In residence are ten young men, all mysteriously missing their right eyes, and an elderly man who seems to be a sort of housekeeper. The king tells them all about his terrible adventures and they prove an appropriately appreciative audience.
They take the king to a chamber in which ten blue couches encircle the walls. One small couch sits at the centre of the room. The old man leads the king to this seat and warns him not to question the young men about their presence here or the cause of their disfigurement. They all eat and drink and talk about the king’s ill-fated journey some more. Then, for no apparent reason, the young men all start smearing themselves with ashes and berating their inquisitiveness. At last, the old man calmly arranges baths for them all and they dress anew. Completely forgetting the warning, the king asks to know why they are acting in such a bizarre fashion. They will not tell him.
The same pattern repeats itself every night of the month the king stays at the palace. He wants to leave but can’t – it’s not made clear why. He grows so disturbed by the ritual that he’ll not eat or drink until he gets some answers. The young men try to warn him that he doesn’t really want to know, but eventually gives in. This is something that needs to be experienced, not explained, so they kill a ram and sew the king in its skin – “a bird called a rukh will swoop on you and lift you up,” they tell him, “before setting you down on a mountain, where you should slit open the skin and come out. The bird will be scared away from you and will go off, leaving you alone.” If he walks for half a day, he will come to a strange-looking palace. Inside, he will find his answers.
As predicted, the bird carries him away and he finds the palace. Answers are not immediately visible – what he gets instead are forty beautiful girls who claim to have been expecting him. “Praise be to God,” they exclaim, “who has brought us one who deserves us and whom we deserve. Today you are our lord and master and we are your slave girls, under your command, so give us your orders.” Bewilderedly, the king asks for food and ends up at the centre of an impromptu party. Afterwards, the girls suggest he pick one of their number to sleep with, which he is only too happy to do. His life devolves into a dreamlike haze of feasting and sex. For a while this works to everyone’s satisfaction, but after a year the girls grow anxious. They are the daughters of kings and this is their personal retreat. If I understand the arrangement correctly, they only spend forty days at a time away from the place. What do their fathers think they’re doing all that time? Is this meant to be a sort of convent? Because it’s gone really badly wrong, if so, and I applaud these girls for their cunning.
Anyway, while they are gone, the king has a simple instruction to follow: of the forty rooms in the palace, he may not enter the fortieth. If he does as he’s told, he’ll be there when they return and life can return to its pleasantly debauched routine. If he does as he’s told. He gives his word that he will and proves how reliable he is by immediately commencing a search of the palace. He’s been there a year and he hasn’t opened any doors. Talk about distractable.
The first chamber contains a beautiful orchard. The second is a flower garden. The third is full of caged birds and the king is so enchanted by their singing that he sleeps there overnight, but all I’m wondering is how these birds are fed while the princesses are away – presumably there are very discreet servants who manage all the other housework too. For thirty nine days, the king wanders from one room to another, basking in their beauty. Then, just as the girls feared, he throws caution aside and opens the fortieth door.
The fragrance that rushes out is so powerful that he passes out. When he wakes, he sees a horse saddled in gold and can’t resist mounting it. Unable to make it move, he snatches up a whip and strikes the poor creature. In response it opens a pair of enormous wings. It flies away, depositing the king on a flat rooftop then flicking its tail so hard into his face that his eye is knocked from its socket. That’s what you get for animal cruelty.
The rooftop, you’ll not be surprised to learn, is that of the brass-doored palace. The king wants to stay there with the other unfortunates, smearing himself with ashes and lamenting his stupidity, but they kick him out unceremoniously. He shaves off his beard, becomes a wanderer and ends up joining the One Eyed Dervish club. His tale concluded, he joins his companions to wait for the next story. This time it is Ja’far who steps up. If you can’t remember who he is after all this time – it’s been a whole month since he was last mentioned, after all – Ja’far is the vizier, who arrived with his boss the caliph and the caliph’s executioner, all pretending to be merchants. He repeats that lie now so convincingly that the ladies allow the three men to go. Since that means the last of the guests have talked their way out of execution, everyone leaves the house together. The caliph invites the dervishes to crash at his place (by which he means, Ja’far’s place, because he’s still incognito) and goes home to think over the evening’s events.
In the morning, the disguise comes off. He has Ja’far bring the whole party to him – the three women, all veiled, their abused dogs, and the dervishes. The only person missing is the porter, which seems a bit unfair. With everyone (almost everyone) assembled before him, the caliph reels off his full title and lineage, and demands the women explain themselves. Why do they beat their dogs, and how is it they bear whip marks themselves? The eldest woman comes forward. Next Tuesday, the storytelling comes full circle as the hostesses reveal their secrets.