Trigger warning: references to ableism and extreme violence
Night thirty two is currently in progress and I’m having no fun because the barber is still talking, there’s ableism all over the place and people keep doing pointlessly mean things. Having told us about the misfortunes of three of his brothers, the barber now starts on Bro 4.
He’s a butcher when the segue starts, quite successful and content with his life. One day an old man comes into the shop and pays for his meat in shining white coins. He becomes a regular customer, and Bro 4 builds up quite a collection of the strange silver. Opening up the cache at last, he’s horrified to find all that money is now nothing but scraps of paper. His cries of rage soon gather a crowd. Feeling solidly in the right, he seizes the old man when he arrives for his usual order and confronts him with the counterfeit.
“Which would you prefer,” the elderly trickster asks, “to leave me alone or to be publicly shamed by me?” This remark only infuriates Bro 4 more, but the old man continues, accusing him of selling human flesh. The dead ram hanging outside his shop transforms into a man. The crowd descends upon him and amidst the violence, the vicious old man knocks out his eye. Dragged before the governor (is it the same governor dealing with all these cases? Is he daydreaming about early retirement yet?), Bro 4 is brutally beaten and stripped of all his assets. If not for that money, he’d probably have been executed. As it is, he takes off to start a new life in a different city.
His new career as a shoemaker is going all right when the king happens to ride past, takes an inexplicable dislike to him and has his servants beat Bro 4 half to death. When Bro 4 asks one of the king’s men why the hell this is happening to him, the man just laughs and says the king has a thing against one-eyed people. YES. REALLY. If Bro 4 had been missing his right eye, he’d have been killed.
Bro 4 does not want to live in a city ruled by such a terrible person, so he packs up and moves. The sound of hooves traumatises him now. Though a long time has passed since the encounter with the king, when he hears horses approaching on the street he flees and pushes through the nearest open door. Because his life is awful, he’s immediately seized by two men who believe him to be a thief. Even when he tells his story, they won’t believe it and drag him before the authorities. The governor here doesn’t believe him either. The scars on his back are apparently evidence enough of his criminal tendencies; he’s given another beating and banished from the city. Hearing of his brother’s misfortunes, the barber goes to collect him and takes him home.
This feels like a creepy children’s game. And then there were four…
The fifth brother is not the brightest spark – having spent his inheritance on fancy glassware, he sits down to daydream about how rich he’ll be once it is sold. When he has this fortune, he plans to marry Shams al-Din’s daughter (the same one who’s into badly negotiated BDSM and publicly humiliating people, presumably, though he probably doesn’t know that). Bro 5 is so engaged in his fantasies that before you know it, he’s worked out the dowry he’s prepared to offer, how he’ll kidnap the girl if her father refuses (no sympathy for this brother, let all the bad things happen to him), what slaves he’ll have in his household, how he’ll display his wealth and pride. He plans to ignore his bride on the wedding night to show how above it all he is.
As night thirty three gets underway, we learn more about why no woman in her right mind would want to marry him. Not until his mother urges him to address his bride does he intend to approach; even then, he’ll make the girl bring him wine first, and kick her if she talks to him. To demonstrate, he lashes out with his foot. I couldn’t be more satisfied when he shatters his entire collection of glass and his dreams of wealth at the same time.
“All this is the result of my pride,” Bro 5 wails, and flops around pathetically. If I had my way, this would be the end of his story, but at this point a beautiful woman rides up and takes pity on him, sending her servant over with a full purse to replace his goods. He goes home an undeservedly happy man. He’s not been there long when an old lady knocks at the door, asking to wash before prayer. They pray together and afterwards he gives her a couple of coins. She takes offence. “Take back your money, as I don’t need it,” she snaps, “or else give it back to the lady who gave it to you. If you want to meet her, I can arrange that for you, as she is my mistress.”
Bro 5 jumps at that offer. Led to a richly furnished mansion, he’s left in a chamber to wait. When the beautiful woman arrives, she’s described as ‘play[ing] with him for a time’, which I hope does not mean sex. She stops after a while and tells him to wait; while he sits alone, a sword-wielding slave comes in and just starts beating him up. Not satisfied with having half-killed the man, he then pours salt on the wounds and has the old woman drag him down to the cellar. WHICH IS FULL OF CORPSES.
For two days Bro 5 lies there, too badly injured to move, but the salting actually helps stem the bleeding and at last he manages to drag himself through a trapdoor into the house. He hides in the entrance hall until morning, sees the terrifying old lady leaving and follows her.
Turns out she’s a serial killer. Or at least the procurer for one. Once he’s recovered from his injuries, Bro 5 sets up a sting. Filling a purse with broken glass and concealing a sword under his clothes, he disguises himself and puts himself in the old lady’s path. Portraying himself as a clueless foreigner, he asks for the loan of scales to measure his money. She takes him to the house of the murder cellar, where the door is answered by the beautiful woman. He’s led to the same room as before. This time, when the slave comes charging in, Bro 5 whips out his sword and beheads him. A servant girl scurries up with salt – he beheads her as well. Then he finds the old woman, tells her who he is and cuts her down.
That only leaves the honey-trap woman. She falls into a weeping mess on the floor, offering him her hard-luck story. She was once in the service of a merchant; she became friends with the old woman and was invited by her to a wedding feast, but instead was kidnapped by the slave and for three years has been forced to participate in the old woman’s dreadful activities. The house is full of dead men’s gold – anyone’s for the claiming now. The woman suggests Bro 5 go gather some muscle to carry it all, but when he gets back to the house she’s gone and most of the money is too. He takes what’s left, including the household goods.
What a bad idea that is! He wakes up to a group of soldiers banging on his door. Dragged off down the street, he calls to a friend to help him, but the soldiers ignore an attempt at bribery and won’t even say what their charge is accused of. I think we can guess. Once at the governor’s house, Bro 5 is questioned about the murder house – cannily, he won’t answer without a guarantee of immunity, but once the story’s told, the governor claims all the valuables for himself and orders that Bro 5 leave the city or be hanged. In one last stroke of appalling luck, he’s set upon en route by thieves, who take his clothes and cut off his ears. That leaves his brother the barber to clothe and house him, like the others.
Take heart, there’s only one left to go!
Bro 6 is poor and a bit desperate. Passing an ostentatiously rich house, he approaches and asks for alms. The doorkeepers tell him to head inside, where he will ‘get what he wants from the owner’. That sounds worryingly vague, but he does as he’s told. Bro 6 finds himself in a magnificent garden. Unsure of where to go, he wanders a bit and is stopped by a seemingly kindly man who declares, “Are you to be hungry in a town in which I live? I cannot bear the thought of it.”
Sounds good, yes? Well, no, not really, because when he yells for a servant to come with washing water, no one arrives – and yet he goes through the motions of washing like there’s water under his hands. The same goes for the ‘meal’. He sits, he chews, but there’s nothing there. At a loss, Bro 6 feels he has to play along. Through several torturous courses he’s ordered to ‘eat up!’, feeling more and more furious with his host. At last the pretence of eating is over and the man starts pretending they have wine instead. Bro 6 fake-swallows until he’s fake-intoxicated and launches himself at the man, slapping at him wildly. “You have been generous to your servant,” he cries. “You have taken him into your house, given him food to eat and old wine to drink, but he has become drunk and attacked you like a hooligan.”
The man starts laughing. He has, he admits, been pranking people for years, but this is the first time someone’s got the better of him. He’s so happy to have a partner in crime that he orders some real food and they eat together, then get genuinely drunk. It’s such a successful night that Bro 6 stays with him. For the next twenty years.
When the man dies, however, the sultan snaps up all his goods and Bro 6’s too, leaving him a penniless as he was before. He leaves the city and is captured by a group of Bedouin. They torture him in the hope of extracting a ransom, cutting off his lips when he can’t give it. In a bizarre twist, his torturer’s wife comes on to him. Seeing them in a compromising position, the torturer then cuts off Bro 6’s penis too. And throws him off a mountain! Somehow at the end of it all he’s still alive, and some passing travellers take care of him until they can pass him over into the barber’s care.
“Here I have come before you, Commander of the Faithful,” the barber concludes, “fearing to leave before telling you my story…since in my shadow stand six brothers, whom I have to support.” The caliph laughs uproariously. “You have told the truth, silent man,” he exclaims, “when you said you are a man of few words…but now leave this city and settle somewhere else.” He officially banishes the barber, who cannot return until the caliph’s death. By the time he gets back, all his brothers are dead too. If he was telling the truth, it’s dreadfully sad.
Somehow he ended up at a party with a criminally negligent tailor and the young man whose love affair he ruined. To understand how those two come into this, you may need to backtrack to Week 19, because we’ve delved so deep into segues since then that I have at times been slowly losing the will to live. That’s why today’s segment is so ridiculously long, because we’re going to get this OVER WITH.
Everyone at the party is sick to death of the barber by now and have him thrown in prison. After they quite calmly finish eating, the tailor goes home. His wife is bored and angry; if he doesn’t entertain her now she threatens to leave him, so they spend the rest of the day having fun in the city. As they are returning home that evening, they encounter the king’s fool and invite him home to dinner.
There, he choked to death. They didn’t mean for that to happen, but it’s the tailor’s wife’s fault it did. The tailor then explains to the king how the body was passed from one panicky murder suspect to another until finally the whole thing unravelled and they ended up telling stories before the king in the hope he might pardon them.
At last the king is impressed. He liked the story of the young man and the barber, goodness knows why – so much so he orders everybody be pardoned, that the fool finally receive burial, and for the barber be released from prison so he can…tell some more…stories…