Masrur and Aziza

A short story inspired by my love of the classic 1001 Nights.

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1. A Tale From The City Of Walls And Stories

Once, there was a servant, and Masrur was his name. He managed the household of a merchant woman, Aziza, and the two were more like brother and sister than servant and mistress. Aziza’s home was as grand as a palace, and even a small palace needs lots of care and work to be at its best. That was Masrur’s job, and he loved it. And Aziza loved to travel, to find what was best in all the world, and sell it to her customers, and the smiles on their faces soon turned into the sound of coins jingling at her belt.

Masrur had questions about everything, and for every answer he found he had another question. And then one more, for luck. Knowing this, Aziza liked to madden her servant with puzzles and conundrums that would tangle the beard of the wisest scholar.  

Masrur it was who discovered how a bag of rice may be used to cross a river.  Who took seven minutes to resolve a dispute of eleven years between five sisters about which was the true owner of the same elephant. Who with a coconut and the song of a bird made a princess smile who had only ever cried. Always Masrur would solve these riddles, but on this occasion the servant’s pride in finding ingenious answers helped him not at all.

 

Every year at this time, Aziza would travel south to the spice lands. 

Every year, Aziza’s swiftest horse would be readied for the expedition, snorting and trotting and eager to be away. 

Every year, she would return from her journey with peppercorns and paprika, sweet brown nutmeg and rich red saffron, and sacks bulging with fat white crystals of finest sea salt. 

In the pink stone courtyard at break of day, Aziza sat on horseback and spoke to her servants. There were pastry cooks and rugbeaters, bottle polishers and bath attendants, and the boy whose job it was to put a green apple in every room.  And there was Masrur, who arranged the household’s affairs and made sure that each servant did their duty.

“I shall return in seven days,” said Aziza. “And while I am gone, you will all listen to Masrur. Treat his words as if they come from my own mouth, and do as he bids. And be sure you have a party, to celebrate the hard work that you have done this year.”

The servants cheered at the news of the festivity, looking forward to the fine time they would enjoy. As they applauded their mistress, Aziza beckoned Masrur and spoke into his ear. “Old friend. My home is yours, and I ask only one thing: that none venture into my bedroom while I am away. Not even you." And saying that, she took to her horse with a smile.

"Aziza knows I will not go into her room, and she knows that I know," said Masrur. "The only reason she would even mention the subject is if she were trying to trick me into entering - a poor puzzle indeed. Well I shall not fall into her trap and, what is more, I shall not think about the subject until Aziza returns."

 

Managing the household and its staff gave Masrur little time for thinking about Aziza's words even if he wanted to, and he did not. The cook had a feast to arrange for the party, and one of Aziza's dogs was sick, and there were lamps to be oiled and rugs to be beaten, fruit to be picked and beggars to be scurried. 

All this and more was in Masrur's charge, so by the end of the first day he was almost too tired to sleep, and had not the energy for exploring Aziza's chamber, let alone the inclination. But, as his head hit the pillow, he could not help thinking how disappointed he was that Aziza would think to trick him so.

As weeds take root in a garden, so do thoughts infect the mind of man, and when Masrur awoke on the second day his thoughts were all of his mistress's chamber.   

“Aziza said not to enter her room, but said nothing of looking into it. I could construct a scaffold outside, to climb and look within.”

Then he grinned, thinking that this is just what Aziza wanted him to be doing, and threw himself into the concerns of the day. He arranged for peacocks and pecan nuts, syllabubs and syrups, to be delivered for the feast, and in the afternoon called on his friends, inviting them to come to the banquet three nights hence.

On the third day Masrur was tired, for he had spent the night dreaming about Aziza's chamber. In his dream, he crept up to the door, tried the handle, and then dashed back to his own room at the sound of his mistress's horse in the yard. Three times he dreamed this, and three times he awoke cursing Aziza for maddening him. But next morning there was a dispute to resolve; a groom had fallen out with a scullion over a seamstress who had declared her love for both.  By the time Masrur had dealt with them and all were friends again it was early evening.

When he retired that night, Masrur congratulated himself on having scarcely considered entering his mistress's room, and within minutes he was asleep, his mind settled. His body had other plans however, and barely an hour after retiring he found himself at the door of Aziza's chamber, having walked there in his sleep. 

Standing there, he swore that he heard a noise within the room, the rise and fall of slow breathing perhaps, but knowing this could not be so he walked away, his blood boiling. “You shall not make me enter your room, Aziza,” Masrur swore to himself. “My mind is strong enough to undo the knottiest riddle. ”

Masrur awoke in an angry mood, his mind buzzing and stinging like a beehive in a nettle-patch. All through the course of the fifth day, the day of the feast, he found irritation with every task that the servants performed. Piglets were not cooked to his satisfaction, nor pies, sauces he found too spicy and soups too bland. Into every dish his finger would go and find it wanting, until the cook would have no more of it and threw Masrur from the kitchen, telling him to stay away until the food was ready.

Walking in the gardens to clear his head, Masrur realised there was only one thing for it: he would have to look in his mistress's room to set his thoughts at rest. But he would have to do so secretly, for Aziza may well have told the other servants to watch out for just such a weakening of Masrur's will. And so he devised a plan - he would go against Aziza’s word and his own promise during the feast that night, leaving the festivities on the pretence of readying a surprise for the guests.

That decided, he cheered up and readied for the evening. A crimson turban with ostrich feathers, silk pantaloons with embroidery of gold, a leather waistcoat with brass buttons, and yellow slippers as curly as a general’s whiskers he fancied to wear, and to the Street of Haberdashers he went to buy them. Also he thought to buy a surprise for the evening, so that when he left the feast he truly would come back to it with something special. To that end he searched around and found a cunningly designed musical box in the shape of a fish.

 

Many parties and feasts were celebrated across the city that evening, and Masrur was the most charming host of them all. As well as Aziza's servants and their families, fifty-three or even sixty-seven others must have been there - friends and relatives, jugglers and minstrels, and even a few passers-by. Their numbers were exceeded only by the enjoyment they shared and the quantities of food and drink they consumed, as course followed course and jugs were emptied.

After most of the food was eaten, Masrur rang a bell and the party goers stopped what they were doing and listened to his announcement. “Ladies and gentleman, I see that you have all enjoyed yourselves. And now we would like to enjoy you.  Show us your tricks! Sing us your songs! Let us make this a night to remember.  And a prize for the performer who entertains us most!”

The guests all thought this a fine idea. Straight away a dozen people volunteered their talents, and a dozen more were pushed forward by their friends, and an area was cleared for them to perform.

First was the cook, who had a fine singing voice and sang a saucy ballad learned when he was a vegetable chopper aboard a sultan's barge. 

Next was the groom and his selection of animal noises, and his charging rhino call was cheered by one and all.  

The mood was merry too when a bath attendant leapt onto a table and began a  wild dance to the tune of an orchestra of stable boys and their uncles. Round and round she span, her emerald robes swirling with the rhythm of zebra-skinned drums and silver trumpets.

A barber swallowed whole oranges…

…a widow drew scarves from a cobbler's mouth…

…a secretary blew bubbles filled with coloured smoke…

…and a rugbeater held his breath for the time it takes to boil a hen's egg.

Finally, a ragged beggar wearing a blindfold asked the cook for his sharpest knives and cleavers. When they were brought, the beggar took them up carefully, one at a time and then all at once. In a trice they were spinning in the air with a life of their own. Juggling was hardly the word for what the blades did in the beggar’s hands - dancing was nearer the mark. Amazing it would have been anyway - still more astonishing that the beggar wore a blindfold throughout. The audience stood statue still while the beggar performed, but as soon as the knives were at rest they erupted into applause.

“We have seen and heard some amazing feats this evening,” exclaimed Masrur.  “And all have performed to the height of their abilities. Eat and drink some more, and we shall see who will receive a prize for the finest entertainment.”  So saying, Masrur left the festivities and made his way upstairs. First he went into his own room, and quickly fetched the fish-shaped musical box. Then he made his way down the corridor to Aziza's chamber, ears burning and heart pounding.

Slowly, slowly, Masrur opened the door, stepping cautiously into the room as the noise of the celebrations continued below. Holding his breath, he stepped once, twice, into the chamber and looked around him. Hardly had he begun to look when he became aware of a noise, and accompanying the noise, a movement.

Masrur turned quickly, raising the musical fish to use as a cudgel, but it was no good. In the time it takes a hummingbird to stretch its wings he was thrown to the floor, a wiry arm clutching his throat and brown breath caressing his cheek. Masrur howled in fright and his assailant howled with him, a mad barking croon that would curdle your marrow. It was then that Masrur caught a glimpse of his attacker's full face, and the gnarled teeth that seemed to take up so much of it.  Masrur was the victim of a wild-eyed mountain ape, transported to his mistress's room by who knows what devilish means.

Screaming, the servant ran down the stairs, the ape clinging to his back and raking him with its clawed fingers. In vain he beat at it with the fish-shaped musical box, succeeding only in setting off its mechanism and letting loose a jangling rendition of an old hunting song.  Masrur ran into the banqueting hall with the creature still attached to him and the fish's tinny scales pealing out.

The commotion that Masrur's entrance caused was a sight to behold. There was screaming and swooning, bewilderment and hysterics, and some play at bravado by the stable boys.

In the midst of the chaos, cushions and curtains thrown this way and that, plates smashed and bowls spilled, the blindfolded beggar approached Masrur and the ape, and spoke a few words into the creature's ear. The ape climbed down from Masrur's back and up into the beggar's arms. Then, as tender now as it had been vicious a moment before, it removed the blindfold from the beggar's face.  The eyes it hid opened to reveal the familiar gaze of Aziza, a grin splitting her face like a slice of melon.

The room fell silent but for the merry round of the musical fish and the rasping giggle of the ape. Masrur looked from the ape to his mistress and back, his eyes fully as wide as the beast's, but though he opened his mouth he could find nothing to say. Finally, as the partygoers took in what was happening and sat in  anticipation, Aziza spoke:

"You have met my new friend already," she said, pointing to the ape. "He has stayed in my room for a few days, while I was away. All that time, he waited in patience, waiting for someone to disturb his peace. But his rest ended today because I wanted him to meet you, Masrur. You two are very alike, you know."

Masrur's face was red, and the shame he knew would swallow the sun and still leave room for the moon. But he looked to Aziza and the face he saw was the face of a friend. The merchant continued:

"You pride yourself on your curious eye and quizzical mind, but the rags I wore  tonight blinded you as surely as the blindfold across my face. I knew you would be unable to resist looking into my room when I told you not to, down to the day when your will would break and lead you to disobey me, just as I knew my ape would attack anyone who entered that room without my permission. But I also know that my household is honest. For only Masrur entered my chambers when any of you could have done so, and then only because of my taunting - and for that knowledge I am happy, and wish the celebrations to continue."

The audience stirred at this, and some of Aziza's servants ventured to applaud their mistress, but she raised her hand and silenced them:

"There is also the matter of the prize for the night's most entertaining performance. And that, Masrur, surely belongs to you for your demonstration of ape-wrestling. I hope you have learned something that is at least as valuable."

And so saying, Aziza picked up the musical fish, dented though it was, and passed it to Masrur, who keeps it by his bedside to this day.

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