Let the Diner Beware

The merchant’s new wife ate so little at meals, and that so slowly—one grain of rice at a time, delicately balanced on the blade of a knife!—that he began to worry. He tried to inspire her appetite with his own, praising how good everything was, suggesting she try this or that choice bit, but she was cheerful and set in her ways. He scoured the city for new recipes, prepared her lavish meals, filled her plate with his own hands, but she just smiled gently, and thanked him warmly, and ate one grain of rice at a time.

He brought in the finest chefs in the empire, men and women who had prepared food for sultans and kings, the most exacting gourmets, culinary artists renowned across the world for the subtle artistry of their spices, the transcendent delights of their desserts. He shipped in the rarest fruits from abroad, the most exquisite candies, the richest meats cooked in the sweetest of wines, but still: one grain of rice at a time, balanced on a knife’s edge, with neither hurry nor waste.

After several years of this he despaired, until one night when she rose in the darkest hour and stole out of their bedroom. Wildly curious, he slipped out after her and followed her through the winding streets of the city. She led him to the meatpacking district, and there, in a dark and lonely alley, fell to eating the rancid offal spilling from an overflowing dumpster with the greatest gusto. He made some small sound as she ate, and she looked up at him without surprise, wiped the jelly from her mouth with the back of a delicate hand, and smiled the same slow, gentle smile.

“Come,” she said, “everything is ready. None who are invited will be fed, and none who come will depart hungry.”

Work, Work, Work

It’s a long story and frankly the caliph is getting bored.

The blind man drones on. “Then, not content with ten of his camels and forty of my own, I returned to the dervish and said, I said, good sir, even thirty camels is a huge number of camels to handle, if you’re not used to it, why don’t I—”

“So did you end up taking all of his camels?” Reliable Ja’afar is so good at picking up on these things; the caliph beams at him happily.

“Ah, yes, my lord. But then I—”

“Talked him out of the ointment, too? And then it did something wondrous, like letting you see all the spirits of the air, I presume?”

“All the treasures of the earth, actually, but only—

“—when applied once or to one eye or with the right words, yeah? And then you put it on again or on the wrong eye or said the wrong words, and then it made you blind and the dervish took all of the camels? Something like that?”

The man is positively deflated. “Exactly like that, my lord. Your majesty. Precisely so.” The caliph doesn’t blame him—wonder brushes against most men but once in their lives, if that—but Baghdad is the wonder of the world and the crossroads of civilization and such stories have been heard without end in this court. The hour grows late and he still has to hear from the man who beat his horse in the market, the three eyeless dervishes, and a half-dozen old porters cursed to speak in tongues.

A Slightly Flawed Execution

Marjane the clever, Marjane the sharp-eyed, went out to borrow some oil for the lamp from the pots her owner’s guest had brought with him.

“Is it time?” whispered the first pot, when she drew near it, which understandably put her on edge.

“Not yet,” she whispered back gruffly.

Each pot she passed did the same! Well, except for the last one, which did indeed contain oil. In the kitchen, staring into the light, she considered her options; murder swift and silent seemed the only solution.

She took a cauldron of oil from the full jar, and boiled it on the fire, then went out to pour it on the unsuspecting bandits.

“EEARGH!” shrieked the first bandit she poured boiling oil on, and all the rest kicked their way out of the jars and murdered the entire household in retribution. Whoopsie-daisy!

The Lord Provides

“In that city,” says the merchant, and the guests settle in at the table, as eager for the tale as for the food, “it was the custom that no one should long outlive their spouse, and so it was that when my wife took sick and died, I was lowered into the tomb beside her with nothing more than a jug of sweet water and seven loaves of bread.” The waiters began bringing in the meal, and he paused to offer thanks.

“I stretched those scant supplies as long as I could, there among the piled dead of the city, but eventually there came a day when I took my last bite of bread and my last swallow of water. I prayed to God the merciful for a swift death, and cursed my folly in again taking to the seas, when a spear of light stabbed in from above—the first in who knows how long!—and the sound of weeping, sadly familiar. Another funeral!”

The merchant pauses to soothe his throat with a glass of wine, and his guests hang suspended with food halfway to their lips, scarcely daring to breath until he resumes. “I crept close in the dark, the long shinbone of a corpse in my hand, and bludgeoned the disoriented husband that was lowered down with his bloodless bride. I wept as I did, and gave thanks to God, but the hardest trial was yet to come, for search as I might I could find no trace of bread, but only another jug of sweet water.”

It is at this point that the guests look across the table and realize there is no meat at all, merely a harvest’s worth of fruit and grain, cunningly prepared and masterfully spiced. The swifter guests blanch in horror, but Sinbad the Porter nods; he too has been hungry. Sinbad the Merchant smiles as he resumes his story, but his eyes above his beard are flat and clouded.

What Is Due A Guest

The old merchant is telling his favorite story, how he made his bank and the terrors and trials he overcame along the way. Most of the table has heard all this before, but the food is good, the wine is better, and he’s a good teller of tales, why fuss?

“So! There we were,” says the merchant, “terrified beyond thinking, dragged to a cave reeking of blood by an army of snickering apes, and in walks a giant, tall as a palm, fires burning in both his eyes—”

“Ah, a Cyclops,” says Burton, the new one, the outsider dolled up in local fashions. “This is clearly Polyphemus!”

Dead silence.

“It had?” says the merchant, off his stride. “Two? Eyes?”

Burton waves it away. “Trifles, trifles. This is clearly a Homeric retelling. A man? At sea? Facing a giant?” He leans back, bulletproof.

Sinbad prays for endurance, as always when first confronted with a monster neither deserved nor sought-for, then presses forward. The table leans forward, attention caught anew.