Trigger warning: references to domestic abuse, violence, ableist language
Night twenty seven begins inauspiciously. Unmoved by the admittedly underwhelming tale of the broker (see last week’s segment), the king is getting bored and decides he should really hang all these dishonest people. Each is either responsible for killing, attempting to kill or covering up the death of his court fool. Also, they made his executioner feel like an idiot by rushing about making confessions all over the place. (I don’t think the king cares about that last issue. I do. It must have been very embarrassing.)
The king’s inspector, one of the guilty party, quickly steps forward. “With your permission, I will tell you a story of what happened to me just before I found this hunchback,” he offers. “If it is more remarkable that the previous tale, will you spare all our lives?” The king agrees, so the inspector begins.
His story opens with a group of friends meeting to recite from the Quran. Afterwards food is laid out, including one very popular sweet dish. Everyone tries it except for one guest. “Don’t force me,” he tells them. “What happened to me the last time I ate this is enough for me.” He probably has a food allergy, people! Show some respect!
Of course they don’t show any respect at all, they demand to know why he won’t eat, so he agrees to taste the dish in question – but only if he can first wash his hands forty times with soap, forty with potash and forty with galingale. I’m not sure he’d have any hands left by the time he’s done with that lot, but the host orders supplies and once he’s completed the ritual the man forces himself to eat. It’s only now they notice he’s missing both thumbs. He tells them that he’s also lost both big toes. With absolutely no tact at all, everyone immediately wants to know how this came about.
So he tells his tale of woe. Segue!
His father was a wealthy merchant who, thanks to an overfondness for wine and music, was a good deal less wealthy by the time he died – stone broke, actually, leaving his son to pay off his debts and get the family shop back into shape. One day a beautiful girl comes riding down the street, flanked by a pair of slaves. The thumbless man’s shop is the only one open at that early hour, so in she comes and within seconds the shopkeeper utterly besotted with her. He stares openly and offers up a few creepy verses about how her beauty tortures him. Her answering poetry is oblique; approving of his admiration, but implying they’ll probably never meet again. She then gets down to business, asking for him to bring her cloth.
The thumbless man’s stocks are limited, but as the other merchants start opening their shops he hurries about collecting her orders. She hands over the pile of fabric to one of the slaves and leaves without actually paying for anything or giving the thumbless man her contact details. Which leaves him in debt to his neighbouring shopkeepers for five thousand dirhams. That sounds like a lot. Certainly they think so; for two weeks the thumbless man is torn between the dizzying flush of love and the practicalities of doing business. Fortunately for him, the girl is honest – she returns at the end of the fortnight and pays up in full. Less fortunately, she places another enormous order, and once again swans off without paying a cent.
The charm is wearing off this relationship. “This woman is nothing but a swindler,” the thumbless man frets, “who has used her beauty and grace to fool me. She thought of me as a little boy and laughed at me and I never even asked her where she lived.” The other shopkeepers agree. When over a month has passed with no sign of their money, they insist the thumbless man sell his property to recoup at least some of the debt. Unexpectedly, however, the girl returns. She calmly produces the money and stays around to chat. “Have you a wife?” she inquires. “No,” our hero replies, “I know no women at all,” and bursts into tears.
Smooth, he is not.
He then tries to bribe one of her slaves to be a go-between, but the slave just laughs because he’s the only one who knows he’s living in a romantic comedy. It turns out she didn’t need most of that cloth, it was just an excuse to see her dishy shopkeeper. The thumbless man and mystery girl finally use their words, make some arrangements and agree to see each other again.
And…nothing happens. A few days later, the shipper slave comes with a message: his mistress is the favourite maidservant of the caliph’s wife, and after their conversation went to the Lady Zubaida asking for permission to marry. Lady Zubaida is, sensibly, reserving judgement until she meets the man. For some reason, this is all a terrible secret. The slave is here to smuggle the shopkeeper into the palace; if his suit goes well, he gets all his dreams, but if he’s found out by the caliph he’ll be executed.
He’s given directions to a mosque, built on the orders of the Lady Zubaida by the river Tigris. The thumbless man stays the night there and in the morning slaves arrive carrying several empty chests, which for some reason they leave inside the mosque. Shortly after that, the girl arrives. There are tears and explanations and then she locks him in a chest. This is the plan! All the other chests are packed up with regular goods, you see, and so can be carried to Lady Zubaida’s palace without arousing suspicion.
Being shut inside a lightless, confined space gives the thumbless man second thoughts. His terror reaches fever pitch when they get to the harem, where a guard insists all the chests be opened. Perhaps someone has tried this particular trick before. The girl’s protests are ignored. Her trapped boyfriend panics and wets himself; this, weirdly, is his salvation, because she quickly insists that the chest’s rough handling has ruined the expensive products within and it is all the guard’s fault. Magic words! The guard waves her grumpily through, but the journey isn’t over yet. Suddenly the thumbless man hears someone say, “Woe, woe, the caliph!” and suddenly a different voice is demanding the chests be opened. It is indeed the caliph.
Sharazad proves her cliffhanger skills by breaking off there.
As we return for night twenty eight, the situation does not look good. Overwhelmed by panic, the thumbless man blacks out – but when the caliph’s slaves reach his chest, the girl rushes to keep it shut and insists it contains the Lady Zubaida’s secret. It can only be opened in her presence. Luckily, that lie works. The chests are brought into the lady’s quarters, the thumbless man is released and the girl goes off to fetch her boss.
Being the caliph’s wife, Lady Zubaida requires her rightful pomp and ceremony even for a covert meeting, preceded into the room by thirty drop-dead gorgeous handmaidens and arriving at last ‘wearing such a quantity of jewellery and such splendid robes that she could scarcely walk’. The thumbless man wisely starts off their meeting by kissing the ground before her. The questioning that follows is mutually satisfactory. “The way that I brought you up has not proved a failure,” Lady Zubaida tells her favourite handmaiden. She then turns sternly on the girl’s suitor. “Know that this girl is like a daughter to me and she is entrusted by God to your protection.” I like this lady.
She totally takes over the courtship, too, insisting the thumbless man stay in the palace for ten days (though he is kept decorously separate from his fiancee), at the end of which time she consults her husband about the marriage. She clearly sells it well because he not only agrees, he bestows ten thousand dinars on the girl as a gift. The necessary officials are summoned, a marriage contract is drawn up and a glorious feast is prepared, including a sweet dish of sugared almonds in rosewater. While awaiting his bride, the thumbless man eats his fill and forgets to wash his hands.
Why is that relevant? You shall see. Sort of.
In come singing girls with tambourines, apparently a fixture of weddings in this time and place, followed by the bride. Left alone at last in bed, the thumbless man reaches for his new wife, but she catches the smell of food on his hands and screams. Her fellow handmaidens come running to the rescue. She turns viciously on her husband, calling him a madman and snatching up a whip (she had a whip just lying around? That’s …extreme) she beats him with such ferocity he passes out. “Bring him to the city magistrate,” she tells her fellow servants, “to cut off the hand with which he ate the almond dish and which he failed to wash”.
Her husband comes to, protesting such a punishment for so small an offence. The handmaidens think it’s a bit much too. Thwarted, his wife goes away for ten days, and when she comes back it is with a racist insult and a razor blade. Having convinced her friends to hold him down, she cuts off his thumbs and toes. She does not intend to actually kill him – this is friendly dismemberment! – and so sprinkles the open wounds with a powder to stem the blood flow. Her husband is so terrified by this point that he promises to never again eat that dish without washing his hands forty times with potash, forty with galingale and forty with soap.
Why does she hate almonds and rosewater so much? We never find out.
Depressingly, they stay together. Soon they move out of the caliph’s palace into a house of their own, paid for by the generosity of Lady Zubaida. And…that’s it. THAT’S IT.
The king who is hearing this story reacts in much the same way as me. “This was no more agreeable than the tale of the hunchback,” he tells the inspector, “and, in fact, his was more agreeable than yours, so I must certainly hang you all.” The doctor plunges into the gap. Can he produce a story that will please the king, or at least not depress everybody who hears it? Find out next Tuesday!