Stories from the Thousand and One Nights. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
The Story of the Humpback
THERE was, in ancient times, in the city of El-Basrah, a tailor who enjoyed an ample income, and was fond of sport and merriment. He was in the habit of going out occasionally with his wife, that they might amuse themselves with strange and diverting scenes; and one day they went forth in the afternoon, and, returning home in the evening, met a humpbacked man, whose aspect was such as to excite laughter in the angry, and to dispel anxiety and grief: so they approached him to enjoy the pleasure of gazing at him, and invited him to return with them to their house, and to join with them in a carousal that night.
He assented to their proposal; and after he had gone with them to the house, the tailor went out to the market; night having then approached. He bought some fried fish, and bread and limes and sweetmeat, and, returning with them, placed the fish before the humpback, and they sat down to eat; and the tailors wife took a large piece of fish, and crammed the humpback with it, and, closing his mouth with her hand, said, By Allah, thou shalt not swallow it but by gulping it at once, and I will not give thee time to chew it. He therefore swallowed it; but it contained a large and sharp bone, which stuck across in his throat, his destiny having so determined, and he expired. The tailor exclaimed, There is no strength nor power but in God, the High, the Great! Alas, that this poor creature should not have died but in this manner by our hands!Wherefore this idling? exclaimed the woman.And what can I do? asked her husband.Arise, she answered, and take him in thy bosom, and cover him with a silk napkin: I will go out first, and do thou follow me, this very night, and say, This is my son, and this is his mother; and we are going to convey him to the physician, that he may give him some medicine.
No sooner had the tailor heard these words than he arose, and took the humpback in his bosom. His wife, accompanying him, exclaimed, O my child! may Allah preserve thee! Where is the part in which thou feelest pain; and where hath this small-pox attacked thee?So every one who saw them said, They are conveying a child smitten with the small-pox. Thus they proceeded, inquiring, as they went, for the abode of the physician; and the people directed them to the house of a physician who was a Jew; and they knocked at the door, and there came down to them a black slave-girl, who opened the door, and beheld a man carrying (as she imagined) a child, and attended by its mother; and she said, What is your business?We have a child here, answered the tailors wife, and we want the physician to see him: take, then, this quarter of a piece of gold, and give it to thy master, and let him come down and see my son; for he is ill. The girl, therefore, went up, and the tailors wife, entering the vestibule, said to her husband, Leave the humpback here, and let us take ourselves away. And the tailor, accordingly, set him up against the wall, and went out with his wife.
The slave-girl, meanwhile, went in to the Jew, and said to him, Below, in the house, is a sick person, with a woman and a man: and they have given me a quarter of a piece of gold for thee, that thou mayest prescribe for them what may suit his case. And when the Jew saw the quarter of a piece of gold, he rejoiced, and, rising in haste, went down in the dark: and in doing so, his foot struck against the lifeless humpback. O Ezra! he exclaimedO Heavens and the Ten Commandments! O Aaron, and Joshua son of Nun! It seemeth that I have stumbled against this sick person, and he hath fallen down the stairs and died! And how shall I go forth with one killed from my house? O Ezras ass!1 He then raised him, and took him up from the court of the house to his wife, and acquainted her with the accident.Any why sittest thou here idle? said she; for if thou remain thus until daybreak our lives will be lost: let me and thee, then, take him up to the terrace, and throw him into the house of our neighbour the Muslim; for he is the steward of the Sultans kitchen, and often do the cats come to his house, and eat of the food which they find there; as do the mice too; and if he remain there for a night, the dogs will come down to him from the terraces and eat him up entirely. So the Jew and his wife went up, carrying the humpback, and let him down by his hands and feet to the pavement; placing him against the wall; which having done, they descended.
Not long had the humpback been thus deposited when the steward returned to his house, and opened the door, and, going up with a lighted candle in his hand, found a son of Adam standing in the corner next the kitchen; upon which he exclaimed, What is this? By Allah, the thief that hath stolen our goods is none other than a son of Adam, who taketh what he findeth of flesh or grease, even though I keep it concealed from the cats and the dogs; and if I killed all the cats and dogs of the quarter it would be of no use; for he cometh down from the terraces!And so saying, he took up a great mallet, and struck him with it, and then, drawing close to him, gave him a second blow with it upon the chest, when the humpback fell down, and he found that he was dead; whereupon he grieved, and said, There is no strength nor power but in God! And he feared for himself, and exclaimed, Curse upon the grease and the flesh, and upon this night, in which the destiny of this man hath been accomplished by my hand! Then, looking upon him, and perceiving that he was a humpback, he said, Is it enough that thou art humpbacked, but must thou also be a robber, and steal the flesh and the grease? O Protector, cover me with thy gracious shelter!And he lifted him upon his shoulders, and descended, and went forth from the house, towards the close of the night, and stopped not until he had conveyed him to the commencement of the market-street, where he placed him upon his feet by the side of a shop at the entrance of a lane, and there left him and retired.
Soon after there came a Christian, the Sultans broker, who, in a state of intoxication, had come forth to visit the bath; and he advanced staggering, until he drew near to the humpback, when he turned his eyes, and beheld one standing by him. Now, some persons had snatched off his turban early in the night, and when he saw the humpback standing there, he concluded that he intended to do the same; so he clenched his fist, and struck him on the neck. Down fell the humpback upon the ground, and the Christian called out to the watchman of the market, while, still in the excess of his intoxication, he continued beating the humpback, and attempting to throttle him. As he was thus employed, the watchman came, and, finding the Christian kneeling upon the Muslim and beating him, said, Arise, and quit him! He arose, therefore, and the watchman, approaching the humpback, saw that he was dead, and exclaimed, How is that the Christian dareth to kill the Muslim? Then seizing the Christian, he bound his hands behind him, and took him to the house of the Wali;2 the Christian saying within himself, O Heavens! O Virgin! how have I killed this man? and how quickly did he die from a blow of the hand!Intoxication had departed, and reflection had come.
The humpback and the Christian passed the remainder of the night in the house of the Wali, and the Wali ordered the executioner to proclaim the Christians crime, and he set up a gallows, and stationed him beneath it. The executioner then came, and threw the rope round his neck, and was about to hang him, when the Sultans steward pushed through the crowd, seeing the Christian standing beneath the gallows, and the people made way for him, and he said to the executioner, Do it not, for it was I who killed him.Wherefore didst thou kill him? said the Wali. He answered, I went into my house last night, and saw that he had descended from the terrace and stolen my goods; so I struck him with a mallet upon his chest, and he died, and I carried him out, and conveyed him to the market-street, where I set him up in such a place, at the entrance of such a lane. Is it not enough for me to have killed a Muslim, that a Christian should be killed on my account? Hang, then, none but me.The Wali, therefore, when he heard these words, liberated the Christian broker, and said to the executioner, Hang this man, on the ground of his confession. And he took off the rope from the neck of the Christian, and put it round the neck of the steward, and having stationed him beneath the gallows, was about to hang him, when the Jewish physician pushed through the crowd, and called out to the executioner, saying to him, Do it not; for none killed him but I; and the case was this: he came to my house to be cured of a disease, and as I descended to him I struck against him with my foot, and he died: kill not the steward, therefore; but kill me. So the Wali gave orders to hang the Jewish physician; and the executioner took off the rope from the stewards neck, and put it round the neck of the Jew. But, lo, the tailor came, and, forcing his way among the people, said to the executioner, Do it not; for none killed him but I; and it happened thus: I was out amusing myself during the day, and as I was returning at the commencement of the night, I met this humpback in a state of intoxication, with a tambourine, and singing merrily; and I stopped to divert myself by looking at him, and took him to my house. I then bought some fish, and we sat down to eat, and my wife took a piece of fish and a morsel of bread, and crammed them into his mouth, and he was choked, and instantly died. Then I and my wife took him to the house of the Jew, and the girl came down and opened the door, and while she went up to her master, I set up the humpback by the stairs, and went away with my wife: so, when the Jew came down and stumbled against him, he thought that he had killed him.And he said to the Jew, Is this true? He answered, Yes. The tailor, then looking towards the Wali, said to him, Liberate the Jew, and hang me. And when the Wali heard this he was astonished at the case of the humpback, and said, Verily this is an event that should be recorded in books! And he said to the executioner, Liberate the Jew, and hang the tailor on account of his own confession. So the executioner had him forward, saying, Dost thou put forward this and take back that; and shall we not hang one? And he put the rope round the neck of the tailor.
Now the humpback was the Sultans buffoon, and the Sultan could not bear him to be out of his sight; and when the humpback had got drunk, and been absent that night and the next day until noon, the King inquired respecting him of some of his attendants, and they answered him, O our lord, the Wali hath taken him forth dead, and gave orders to hang the person who killed him, and there came a second and a third person, each saying, None killed him but I:and describing to the Wali the cause of his killing him. When the King, therefore, heard this, he called out to the Chamberlain, and said to him, Go down to the Wali, and bring them all hither before me. So the Chamberlain went down, and found that the executioner had almost put to death the tailor, and he called out to him, saying, Do it not:and informed the Wali that the case had been reported to the King. And he took him, and the humpback borne with him, and the tailor and the Jew and the Christian and the steward, and went up with them all to the King; and when the Wali came into the presence of the King, he kissed the ground, and related to him all that had happened. And the King, was astonished, and was moved with merriment, at hearing this tale; and he commanded that it should be written in letters of gold. He then said to those who were present, Have ye ever heard anything like the story of this humpback? And upon this the Christian advanced, and said, O King of the age, if thou permit me I will relate to thee an event that hath occurred to me more wonderful and strange and exciting than the story of the humpback.Tell us then thy story, said the King. And the Christian related as follows:
Note 1. Ozeyr, or Ezra, riding on an ass by the ruins of Jerusalem, after it had been destroyed by the Chaldeans, doubted in his mind by what means God could raise the city and its inhabitants again; whereupon God caused him to die, and he remained in that condition a hundred years; at the end of which God restored him to life, and he found a basket of figs and a cruse of wine he had with him, not in the least spoiled or corrupted, but his ass was dead, the bones only remaining; and these, while the Prophet looked on, were raised and cloathed with flesh, becoming an ass again, which, being inspired with life, began immediately to bray.Sales Koran, ch. ii., note [p. 31, ed. 1734]. [back]