At the Heart of Each Pearl Lies a Grain of Sand
Marie Brennan’s new tale examines the truth of stories we think we know well, and those we’ve never heard before. ~ Julian and Fran, April 9, 2023
At the Heart of Each Pearl Lies a Grain of Sand
By Marie Brennan
During the reign of the famed Caliph Harun al-Rashid, the world was a different and more wondrous place. Men daily went to sea in search of profit or adventure; suffered the wreck of their ships on account of monstrous beasts or terrible storms; washed up on the shores of strange and mysterious islands; found there riches beyond imagining, accommodating young women of great beauty, or both; were rescued by helpful passing captains; and by chance encountered men who could tell them the way back to their far-distant homelands. Others came into possession of rings and lamps and saddlebags, which were the home of jinn, who aided them against the schemes of their wicked and murderous brothers; this commonly resulted in them living in palaces more sumptuous than any sultan’s treasury, by which means they took the sultan’s daughter to wife and his throne after he died.
But among all those astounding tales, there is perhaps none more wondrous than this.
* * *
You may have heard one form of this tale, which begins with a porter hired for an errand and a house inhabited by three beautiful young women living in lonely splendor.
In the usual way of things, as those women were entertaining their new friend the porter with a lavish meal, a knocking came at their door. Soon they found themselves playing hostess to three dervishes who all happened to be dispossessed princes afflicted by the same wound, namely, blindness in their left eyes, though in all cases the cause was different; and also of the disguised Caliph accompanied by his vizier, that pair being prone to wandering the streets of Baghdad disguised as common men. Together these assorted worthies sat down to a banquet of succulent chicken stuffed with raisins and rice, skewers of lamb marinated in fine spices, and sweets of pistachios and honey and figs. To slake their thirst they had wine (and sweetened rosewater for the pious Caliph), and incense perfumed the air.
But these three women had one request of their guests—porter, dervishes, and disguised vizier and Caliph alike—which was that they ask not about that which did not concern them. Of course the porter and the dervishes failed this test, for in those days hardly anyone could refrain from doing the single thing they had explicitly been told not to do, no matter how simple. Their questioning angered the ladies of the house, and for this they nearly lost their lives. But in the end they survived; so much for them.
The Caliph, however, held his tongue. He did this not out of virtue, but out of cunning: he had a plan, suggested to him by his vizier. The following day, having left that house, he sent his vizier to bring the three women to him.
They came into his halls of gold and veined marble, where pierced windows of sandalwood gently scented the breeze, and took their places behind a curtain to screen them from public view—but not before seeing the splendid Caliph. Gone was his simple turban of the night before, replaced by one so stiff with embroidered gold it might have deflected a sword. Then they knew their humble guest of the night before had been no such thing. And as the Caliph was no longer their guest, he wasted no time in asking each to tell her tale.
From the first he learned how she had suffered at the hands of her wicked and murderous sisters, whom a helpful jinniyah had subsequently transformed into a pair of dogs that she was required to whip each day, lest she, too, be condemned to life as a dog. As this was far from an unusual tale, the Caliph was not at all surprised, but rather summoned the jinniyah, whom he ordered to return the sisters to their natural shape. This the jinniyah did, and the first young woman forgave them, as people often did in those days.
From the second he learned how she had suffered at the hands of her jealous and controlling husband, who extracted from her an oath not to favor any man other than him; and when he believed she had broken her oath, he beat her so viciously she bore the scars to that very day. As this was far from an unusual tale, the Caliph was not at all surprised, but rather had his soldiers bring to him the husband, who turned out to be the Caliph’s own son. This they did, and the second young woman (rather shockingly) did not forgive him, though people often did in those days.
But from the third he learned nothing. She only smiled and offered a respectful bow, requesting that the Caliph honor the precept of the house in which he had stayed: to ask not about that which did not concern him.
This only intrigued the Caliph more. But the women had given him hospitality; he had rewarded the first with the restoration of her sisters, and the second with the punishment of her husband. How could he reward the third, except to grant her request?
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