They relate, O King of the age and lord of the time and of these days, that the Caliph Harun al-Rashid summoned his Wazir Ja’afar one night and said to him, “I desire to go down into the city and question the common folk concerning the conduct of those charged with its governance; and those of whom they complain we will depose from office and those whom they commend we will promote.” Quoth Ja’afar, “Hearkening and obedience!” So the Caliph went down with Ja’afar and Eunuch Masrur to the town and walked about the streets and markets and, as they were threading a narrow alley, they came upon a very old man with a fishing-net and crate to carry small fish on his head, and in his hand a staff; and, as he walked at a leisurely pace, he repeated these lines:—
“They say me: Thou shinest a light to mankind
With thy lore as the night which the Moon doth uplight!
I answer, “A truce to your jests and your gibes.
Without luck what is learning?—a poor-devil wight!
If they take me to pawn with my lore in my pouch,
With my volumes to read and my ink-case to write,
For one day’s provision they never could pledge me,
As likely on Doomsday to draw bill at sight.”
How poorly, indeed, doth it fare wi’ the poor,
With his pauper existence and beggarly plight.
In summer he faileth provision to find,
In winter the fire-pot’s his only delight.
The street-dogs with bite and with bark to him rise,
And each losel receives him with bark and with bite.
If he lift up his voice and complain of his wrong,
None pities or heeds him, however he’s right,
And when sorrows and evils like these he must brave,
His happiest homestead were down in the grave.”
When the Caliph heard his verses he said to Ja’afar, “See this poor man and note his verses, for surely they point to his necessities.” Then he accosted him and asked, “O Shaykh, what be thine occupation?” and the poor man answered, “O my lord, I am a fisherman with a family to keep and I have been out between mid-day and this time; and not a thing hath Allah made my portion wherewithal to feed my family. I cannot even pawn myself to buy them a supper and I hate and disgust my life and I hanker after death.” Quoth the Caliph, “Say me, wilt thou return with us to Tigris’ bank and cast thy net on my luck, and whatsoever turneth up I will buy of thee for an hundred gold pieces?” The man rejoiced when he heard these words and said, “On my head be it! I will go back with you;” and, returning with them riverwards, made a cast and waited a while; then he hauled in the rope and dragged the net ashore and there appeared in it a chest padlocked and heavy. The Caliph examined it and lifted it finding it weighty; so he gave the fisherman two hundred dinars and sent him about his business; whilst Masrur, aided by the Caliph, carried the chest to the palace and set it down and lighted the candles. Ja’afar and Masrur then broke it open and found therein a basket of palm-leaves corded with red worsted. This they cut open and saw within it a piece of carpet which they lifted out, and under it was a woman’s mantilla folded in four, which they pulled out; and at the bottom of the chest they came upon a young lady, fair as a silver ingot, slain and cut into nineteen pieces. When the Caliph looked upon her he cried, “Alas!” and tears ran down his cheeks and turning to Ja’afar he said, “O dog of Wazirs, shall folk be murdered in our reign and be cast into the river to be a burden and a responsibility for us on the Day of Doom? By Allah, we must avenge this woman on her murderer and he shall be made die the worst of deaths!” And presently he added, “ Now, as surely as we are descended from the Sons of Abbas, if thou bring us not him who slew her, that we do her justice on him, I will hang thee at the gate of my palace, thee and forty of thy kith and kin by thy side.” And the Caliph was wroth with exceeding rage. Quoth Ja’afar, “Grant me three days’ delay;” and quoth the Caliph, “We grant thee this.” So Ja’afar went out from before him and returned to his own house, full of sorrow and saying to himself, “How shall I find him who murdered this damsel, that I may bring him before the Caliph? If I bring other than the murderer, it will be laid to my charge by the Lord: in very sooth I wot not what to do.” He kept his house three days and on the fourth day the Caliph sent one of the Chamberlains for him and, as he came into the presence, asked him, “Where is the murderer of the damsel?” to which answered Ja’afar, “O Commander of the Faithful, am I inspector of murdered folk that I should ken who killed her?” The Caliph was furious at his answer and bade hang him before the palace-gate and commanded that a crier cry through the streets of Baghdad, “Whoso would see the hanging of Ja’afar, the Barmaki, Wazir of the Caliph, with forty of the Barmecides, his cousins and kinsmen, before the palace-gate, let him come and let him look!” The people flocked out from all the quarters of the city to witness the execution of Ja’afar and his kinsmen, not knowing the cause. Then they set up the gallows and made Ja’afar and the others stand underneath in readiness for execution, but whilst every eye was looking for the Caliph’s signal, and the crowd wept for Ja’afar and his cousins of the Barmecides, lo and behold! a young man fair of face and neat of dress and of favour like the moon raining light, with eyes black and bright, and brow flower-white, and cheeks red as rose and young down where the beard grows, and a mole like a grain of ambergris, pushed his way through the people till he stood immediately before the Wazir and said to him, “Safety to thee from this strait, O Prince of the Emirs and Asylum of the poor! I am the man who slew the woman ye found in the chest, so hang me for her and do her justice on me!” When Ja’afar heard the youth’s confession he rejoiced at his own deliverance. but grieved and sorrowed for the fair youth; and whilst they were yet talking behold, another man well stricken in years pressed forwards through the people and thrust his way amid the populace till he came to Ja’afar and the youth, whom he saluted saying, “Ho thou the Wazir and Prince sans-peer! believe not the words of this youth. Of a surety none murdered the damsel but I; take her wreak on me this moment; for, an thou do not thus, I will require it of thee before Almighty Allah.” Then quoth the young man, “O Wazir, this is an old man in his dotage who wotteth not whatso he saith ever, and I am he who murdered her, so do thou avenge her on me!” Quoth the old man, “O my son, thou art young and desirest the joys of the world and I am old and weary and surfeited with the world: I will offer my life as a ransom for thee and for the Wazir and his cousins. No one murdered the damsel but I, so Allah upon thee, make haste to hang me, for no life is left in me now that hers is gone.” The Wazir marvelled much at all this strangeness and, taking the young man and the old man, carried them before the Caliph, where, after kissing the ground seven times between his hands, he said, “O Commander of the Faithful, I bring thee the murderer of the damsel!” “Where is he?” asked the Caliph and Ja’afar answered, “This young man saith, I am the murderer, and this old man giving him the lie saith, I am the murderer, and behold, here are the twain standing before thee.” The Caliph looked at the old man and the young man and asked, “Which of you killed the girl?” The young man replied, “No one slew her save I”; and the old man answered, “Indeed none killed her but myself.” Then said the Caliph to Ja’afar, “Take the twain and hang them both”; but Ja’afar rejoined, “Since one of them was the murderer, to hang the other were mere injustice.” “By Him who raised the firmament and dispread the earth like a carpet,” cried the youth, “I am he who slew the damsel”; and he went on to describe the manner of her murder and the basket, the mantilla and the bit of carpet, in fact all that the Caliph had found upon her. So the Caliph was certified that the young man was the murderer; whereat he wondered and asked him, ‘What was the cause of thy wrongfully doing this damsel to die and what made thee confess the murder without the bastinado, and what brought thee here to yield up thy life, and what made thee say Do her wreak upon me?” The youth answered, “Know, O Commander of the Faithful, that this woman was my wife and the mother of my children; also my first cousin and the daughter of my paternal uncle, this old man who is my father’s own brother. When I married her she was a maid and Allah blessed me with three male children by her; she loved me and served me and I saw no evil in her, for I also loved her with fondest love. Now on the first day of this month she fell ill with grievous sickness and I fetched in physicians to her; but recovery came to her little by little and, when I wished her to go to the Hammam-bath, she said, “There is a something I long for before I go to the bath and I long for it with an exceeding longing.” “To hear is to comply,” said I. “And what is it?” Quoth she, “I have a queasy craving for an apple, to smell it and bite a bit of it.” I replied, “Hadst thou a thousand longings I would try to satisfy them!” So I went on the instant into the city and sought for apples but could find none; yet, had they cost a gold piece each, would I have bought them. I was vexed at this and went home and said, “O daughter of my uncle, by Allah I can find none!” She was distressed, being yet very weakly, and her weakness increased greatly on her that night and I felt anxious and alarmed on her account. As soon as morning dawned I went out again and made the round of the gardens, one by one, but found no apples anywhere. At last there met me an old gardener, of whom I asked about them and he answered, “O my son, this fruit is a rarity with us and is not now to be found save in the garden of the Commander of the Faithful at Bassorah, where the gardener keepeth it for the Caliph’s eating.” I returned to my house troubled by my ill-success; and my love for my wife and my affection moved me to undertake the journey. So I gat me ready and set out and travelled fifteen days and nights, going and coming, and brought her three apples which I bought from the gardener for three dinars. But when I went in to my wife and set them before her, she took no pleasure in them and let them lie by her side; for her weakness and fever had increased on her and her malady lasted without abating ten days, after which time she began to recover health. So I left my house and betaking me to my shop sat there buying and selling; and about midday behold, a great ugly black slave, long as a lance and broad as a bench, passed by my shop holding in hand one of the three apples wherewith he was playing. Quoth I, “O my good slave, tell me whence thou tookest that apple, that I may get the like of it?” He laughed and answered, “I got it from my mistress, for I had been absent and on my return I found her lying ill with three apples by her side, and she said to me, ‘My horned wittol of a husband made a journey for them to Bassorah and bought them for three dinars.’ So I ate and drank with her and took this one from her.” When I heard such words from the slave, O Commander of the Faithful, the world grew black before my face, and I arose and locked up my shop and went home beside myself for excess of rage. I looked for the apples and finding only two of the three asked my wife, “O my cousin, where is the third apple?”; and raising her head languidly she answered, “I wot not, O son of my uncle, where ’tis gone!” This convinced me that the slave had spoken the truth, so I took a knife and coming behind her got upon her breast without a word said and cut her throat. Then I hewed off her head and her limbs in pieces and, wrapping her in her mantilla and a rag of carpet, hurriedly sewed up the whole which I set in a chest and, locking it tight, loaded it on my he-mule and threw it into the Tigris with my own hands. So Allah upon thee, O Commander of the Faithful, make haste to hang me, as I fear lest she appeal for vengeance on Resurrection Day. For, when I had thrown her into the river and none knew aught of it, as I went back home I found my eldest son crying and yet he knew naught of what I had done with his mother. I asked him, “What hath made thee weep, my boy?” and he answered, “I took one of the three apples which were by my mammy and went down into the lane to play with my brethren when behold, a big long black slave snatched it from my hand and said. ‘Whence hadst thou this?’ Quoth I, ‘My father travelled far for it, and brought it from Bassorah for my mother who was ill and two other apples for which he paid three ducats.’ He took no heed of my words and I asked for the apple a second and a third time, but he cuffed me and kicked me and went off with it. I was afraid lest my mother should swinge me on account of the apple, so for fear of her I went with my brother outside the city and stayed there till evening closed in upon us; and indeed I am in fear of her. And now by Allah, O my father, say nothing to her of this or it may add to her ailment!” When I heard what my child said I knew that the slave was he who had foully slandered my wife, the daughter of my uncle, and was certified that I had slain her wrongfully. So I wept with exceeding weeping and presently this old man, my paternal uncle and her father, came in, and I told him what had happened and he sat down by my side and wept and we ceased not weeping till midnight. We have kept up mourning for her these last five days and we lamented her in the deepest sorrow for that she was unjustly done to die. This came from the gratuitous lying of the slave, the blackamoor, and this was the manner of my killing her; so I conjure thee, by the honour of thine ancestors, make haste to kill me and do her justice upon me, as there is no living for me after her!” The Caliph marvelled at his words and said, “By Allah, the young man is excusable: I will hang none but the accursed slave and I will do a deed which shall comfort the ill-at-ease and suffering, and which shall please the All-glorious King.”—And Shahrazad perceived the dawn of day and ceased saying her permitted say.
When it was the Twentieth Night.
She said, It hath reached me, O auspicious King, that the Caliph swore he would hang none but the slave, for the youth was excusable. Then he turned to Ja’afar and said to him, “Bring before me this accursed slave who was the sole cause of this calamity; and, if thou bring him not before me within three days, thou shalt be slain in his stead.” So Ja’afar fared forth weeping and saying, “Two deaths have already beset me, nor shall the crock come off safe from every shock. In this matter craft and cunning are of no avail; but He who preserved my life the first time can preserve it a second time. By Allah, I will not leave my house during the three days of life which remain to me and let the Truth (whose perfection be praised!) do e’en as He will.” So he kept his house three days, and on the fourth day he summoned the Kazis and legal witnesses and made his last will and testament, and took leave of his children weeping. Presently in came a messenger from the Caliph and said to him, “The Commander of the Faithful is in the most violent rage that can be, and he sendeth to seek thee and he sweareth that the day shall certainly not pass without thy being hanged unless the slave be forthcoming.” When Ja’afar heard this he wept, and his children and slaves and all who were in the house wept with him. After he had bidden adieu to everybody except his youngest daughter, he proceeded to farewell her; for he loved this wee one, who was a beautiful child, more than all his other children; and he pressed her to his breast and kissed her and wept bitterly at parting from her, when he felt something round inside the bosom of her dress and asked her, “O my little maid, what is in thy bosom pocket?”; “O my father,” she replied, “it is an apple with the name of our Lord the Caliph written upon it. Rayhan our slave brought it to me four days ago and would not let me have it till I gave him two dinars for it.” When Ja’afar heard speak of the slave and the apple, he was glad and put his hand into his child’s pocket and drew out the apple and knew it and rejoiced saying, “O ready Dispeller of trouble!” Then he bade them bring the slave and said to him, “Fie upon thee, Rayhan! whence haddest thou this apple?” “By Allah, O my master,” he replied, “though a lie may get a man once off, yet may truth get him off, and well off, again and again. I did not steal this apple from thy palace nor from the gardens of the Commander of the Faithful. The fact is that five days ago, as I was walking along one of the alleys of this city, I saw some little ones at play and this apple in hand of one of them. So I snatched it from him and beat him and he cried and said, ‘O youth this apple is my mother’s and she is ill. She told my father how she longed for an apple, so he travelled to Bassorah and bought her three apples for three gold pieces, and I took one of them to play withal.’ He wept again, but I paid no heed to what he said and carried it off and brought it here, and my little lady bought it of me for two dinars of gold. And this is the whole story.” When Ja’afar heard his words he marvelled that the murder of the damsel and all this misery should have been caused by his slave; he grieved for the relation of the slave to himself, while rejoicing over his own deliverance, and he repeated these lines: —
“If ill betide thee through thy slave,
Make him forthright thy sacrifice.
A many serviles thou shalt find,
But life comes once and never twice.”
Then he took the slave’s hand and, leading him to the Caliph, related the story from first to last and the Caliph marvelled with extreme astonishment, and laughed till he fell on his back and ordered that the story be recorded and be made public amongst the people. But Ja’afar said, “Marvel not, O Commander of the Faithful, at this adventure, for it is not more wondrous than the History of the Wazir Núr al-Dín Ali of Egypt and his brother Shams al-Dín Mohammed.” Quoth the Caliph, “Out with it; but what can be stranger than this story?” And Ja’afar answered, “O Commander of the Faithful, I will not tell it thee, save on condition that thou pardon my slave”; and the Caliph rejoined, “If it be indeed more wondrous than that of the three apples, I grant thee his blood, and if not I will surely slay thy slave.” So Ja’afar began in these words the . . .
From The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainment, vol. 1, translated and annotated by Sir Richard Francis Burton (The Burton Club, 1985–1988). “The Tale of the Three Apples” was told to King Shahryar on the nineteenth night, continuing on to the twentieth.