Excerpt

“The Nightingale That Speaks”

Najla Jraissaty Khoury, Trans. by Inea Bushnaq

March 19, 2018 
The following is from Najla Jraissaty Khoury's story collection, Pearls on a Branch. The collection features 30 stories, transcribed directly from oral stories heard across Lebanon. During the country's civil war, Najla Jraissaty Khoury worked for a traveling theater troupe. Many of the plays were based on oral stories, and in 2014 she collected 100 of the most popular and published them in Arabic.

Long ago, in a former age and a bygone time, there was a king who wished to test the loyalty of his people. He issued a command that for one night no light must show in any part of the city. As no one dared to disobey the royal order, the whole city was plunged into darkness.

On the edge of the town there was a modest house in which three sisters lived by themselves. They earned their living spinning wool. On the night of the king’s order, they covered their lamp with a large copper bowl in which they had pierced three holes. Each of the sisters sat by one of the openings, and in this way, they were able to see and continue spinning their wool.

At the palace the king said to his vizier:

“Let us go down to the vault where clothing is stored and dress ourselves like dervishes. Let’s see if anyone is breaking our rule.”

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Wearing clothes in which no one would recognize them, the two men wandered through the city. The only light they saw was a small spark at the edge of the town. Going up to the window of the house, the king and his minister looked inside and saw the young women spinning wool by the dim light of the covered lamp. They listened to them talking to each other.

The oldest was saying:

“If only I could marry the king’s baker, then I would eat the finest bread in the land!”

The middle sister said:

“If only I could marry the king’s cook, then I would eat the finest food in the land!”

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But the youngest sister said:

“For myself, I would not accept anyone as a husband, not even the king’s son, unless he agreed to carry my clothes for me on my way to the Turkish bath. Only then would I marry him. And I would bear him a son with one lock of silver in his hair and a daughter with one lock of gold.”

Then the girls fell silent and went on with their work by the light from the holes in the copper bowl.

The king told his vizier to note who these sisters were and the next morning he sent a messenger to bring them. When the man summoned the three young women, they went with him, feeling very frightened. On reaching the palace, they found themselves face-to-face with the king and his vizier.

“Peace be with our Sovereign,” they said in unison.

The king greeted them and told them that he wanted to make their wishes come true. He asked the oldest sister what she wished for.

“If only I could marry the king’s baker,” she said, “then I would be eating the finest bread in the land.”

The king called the royal baker and said:

“Your wish is granted: here is the king’s baker!”

Then he asked the middle sister what her wish was and she said:

“If only I could marry the king’s cook, then I would be eating the finest food in the land.”

The king called the royal cook and said:

“Your wish is granted: here is the king’s cook!”

When he asked the youngest sister the same question, she said:

“For myself, I would not accept anyone as a husband, not even the king’s son, unless he agreed to carry my clothes for me on my way to the Turkish bath. Only then would I marry him. And I would bear him a son with a lock of silver in his hair and a daughter with a lock of gold.”

The king told the prince: “Here is your bride!”

“Let us set the date for the wedding,” said the king’s son, and he carried the youngest sister’s clothes to the Turkish bath for her.

All three young women were married on the same day: the eldest to the royal baker, the middle sister to the royal cook, and the youngest to the king’s son. There followed days of festivity and nights of celebration and for the duration, no one ate or drank except from the king’s kitchen.

It was a happy life until war broke out. The prince was duty-bound to lead his soldiers and defend his country. Before he departed he urged his mother to look after his wife, who was pregnant.

The days passed, one like the other, and the eldest sister grew tired of eating fresh bread and baked goods that were finer than any others. The middle sister, too, was bored by the exceptional food that had no equal and of which there was plenty every day. Envy began to seep into the hearts of the two women, and they started to resent their youngest sister.

The months went by quickly, though as they say, “sooner count the eggs you break into a pan than count the months of a woman’s pregnancy.” When the day came, the youngest sister gave birth to twins: a boy with a lock of silver in his hair and a girl with a lock of gold.

The jealous sisters arranged with the midwife to substitute a kitten and a puppy for the two infants. The woman took the twins and tucked them into a large wicker basket, which she threw into the river. By the side of the young mother, she placed a kitten and a puppy.

The courier who reached the prince brought him news that his wife had given birth to a kitten and a puppy dog. The prince refused to believe what he heard and he returned home immediately. When he arrived he found his wife in tears and the two little cubs by her side. His heart would not permit him to kill her, so he had her removed to the palace of isolation.

As for the wicker basket, the river swept it up and the current carried it along until it touched shore near a planted garden. The gardener was taken aback to find a basket which had inside it two little infants of radiant beauty. He picked them up and ran to his wife, saying:

“Be happy with the news I bring! God has sent us two children. They will be our family in the years that are left to us.”

 

I would not accept anyone as a husband, not even the king’s son, unless he agreed to carry my clothes for me on my way to the Turkish bath. Only then would I marry him. And I would bear him a son with one lock of silver in his hair and a daughter with one lock of gold.”

 

The gardener’s wife kissed them and held them tenderly in her arms. The old couple took care of the children and raised them lovingly. Surrounded with affection and indulgence, the twins flourished: the boy with the lock of silver in his hair and his sister with the lock of gold. They learned to read and write; they also practiced fencing and horseback riding. Time passed and the gardener’s wife died and was mourned. When the gardener too was on his deathbed, he called the children to him and explained how he had found them in a wicker basket floating down the river. He showed them where he kept the money he had saved for them to live on and after urging them never to be parted from each other, he kissed them both and died.

The twins continued to live together in the same house. Then one day one of their aunts, their mother’s sister, happened to see them as they were walking outside. She followed them to find out where they lived and raced to tell the other aunt what she had discovered:

“I saw them with my own eyes! Twins! With a lock of silver and a lock of gold! They are alive!”

“What if the king finds out?” cried her sister. “He will surely cut off our heads. What can we do?”

They went to the old midwife, asking her to help them in their difficulty. Meeting in secret with the two sisters, the old woman devised a scheme. She made her way to the gardener’s house and knocked at the door. The girl was alone. When she opened the door the old woman said:

“My dear, do you have a corner in your house where I can pray? I don’t want to miss the midday prayers.”

“Please come in, Granny,” said the girl, “I bid you welcome!” When the old woman had done praying she said:

“What a beautiful house you have, God bless it! How well built and spacious!”

The girl was pleased to hear this, so she showed the old woman round; she took her into the bedrooms and to the garden behind the house. Everywhere the old midwife went she was filled with wonder. Each time she admired a part of the house that impressed her she repeated, “It is God’s will! Mashallah! It is God’s will!” People say this to avert bad luck. She went on:

“My dear child, you possess everything, you lack nothing! The only thing you need for your happiness to be complete is Bulbul as-Siah, the Nightingale that Speaks.”

“A nightingale that speaks?” asked the girl in surprise, “Where can I get it?”

“What a question!” said the old woman, “Ask your brother for it! You told me he was the world’s best horseman. Let your brother bring it for you!”

And off she went.

Sitting alone in the house, the girl kept thinking about Bulbul as-Siah and crying. She waited impatiently for her brother to come home. When he returned in the evening and asked why she wept, she told him about the strange bird that would make her happiness complete:

“Bring me Bulbul as-Siah, dear Brother,” she said, “and I will never ask for anything again!”

“It must live in some faraway place,” said her brother, “How can I go and leave you by yourself?”

This made her cry the harder but she went on begging until at last he said:

“Prepare the supplies and get the provisions. For you I’ll go to the farthest of regions.”

The next morning he packed and set out alone, to faraway countries, beyond his own.

He traversed mountains and valleys and rode across level plains until he came to a parting of the ways. There in the middle of the path sat a ghoul, his hair so long it covered his eyes and his face. The young man saluted the ghoul and said:

“Peace be with you, Uncle Ghoul.” The ghoul said:

“Had not your greeting
Come first before your speaking,
Your flesh and bones I’d now be eating.”

The youth approached the ghoul, cleaned his face, cut his hair and altogether sweetened his mood.

“Wonderful! I can see the world again!” said the ghoul.

The young man told his story and explained that he was seeking Bulbul as-Siah.

The ghoul advised him:

“Take this road until you reach an orchard in the grounds of a castle. You will see two birdcages, one made of gold and one of woven cane. Take the cage of cane and don’t think of touching the cage of gold.”

The youth rode on and on till he came to the orchard. Fruits of every kind and shape hung from the branches of the trees and there before him were the two cages, a bird in each. He said to himself:

“Does it make sense to take the cage of cane and leave the one of gold?”

As soon as he reached with his arm to seize the golden cage, the bird inside awoke and gave a warning shriek. In an instant, the guards protecting the orchard fell upon the boy. They arrested him and took him to the king. The king asked,

“What brought you to this place, young man?”

He answered,

“Believe me, O King of the Age, my motive is not greed but love. I am here for my sister’s sake.”

He told his story and the king said,

“Good! I will give you Bulbul as-Siah if you bring me the Rice-Bearing Tree.”

The young man mounted his horse and left. He crossed hills and valleys until he found himself face-to-face with a ghoul sitting in the middle of the road with one leg pointing to the east and one leg to the west. He saluted the ghoul and the ghoul said:

“Had not your greeting
Preceded
your speaking,
The mountaintops and heath
Would hear me crunch your bones between my teeth.”

The youth went up to the ghoul and bathed him and cleaned him and offered him a piece of cheese to soften his throat. The ghoul was pleased. When the young man told his story and explained that he was looking for the Rice-Bearing Tree, the ghoul said:

“Continue on this road until you come to a garden alongside a river. There you will find the Rice-Bearing Tree. Break off one small twig and do not think of uprooting the whole tree.”

The young man rode and went on riding until he reached the garden. Greenery and grass covered the ground and in the midst of it, white and translucent, stood the Rice-Bearing Tree. Instead of breaking off a small twig, the youth thought:

“Does it make sense to take a twig and leave the tree?”

But the moment he raised his hand to touch it, the tree shuddered and began to rustle. Immediately he was surrounded by guards who seized him and took him to the king. The king asked:

“What brought you to this place, young man?”

He said:

“Believe me, O King of our Time, my reason for coming is not greed but love. I am here for my sister’s sake.”

He told his story and how he wanted the Rice-Bearing Tree in order to get Bulbul as-Siah, the Nightingale that Speaks. The king said:

“Good! I’ll give you the tree if you bring me the daughter of the king of the Far City.”

The young man leapt onto his horse and went on his way. When he reached the city gate, he saw an old man sitting by the side of the road, leaning on a cane. The man asked:

“Where are you going, my son?”

The young man answered:

“I am looking for the king’s daughter.”

“That is a difficult and dangerous quest,” said the old man.

The young man said:

“Let me tell you, Uncle, that my motive is not greed but love of my sister. For her sake I am willing to undertake any difficult and dangerous task.”

And he explained how he wanted to find the king’s daughter in order to get the Rice-Bearing Tree and that he needed the tree to get Bulbul as-Siah. The old man said:

“I can help you but listen to me carefully, my Son! I will be transforming myself into a bird and I will fly with you to the king’s daughter. You will enter her room. She will be in front of the mirror combing her hair. If you pluck one hair she will come with you. But do not on any account take more than a single hair!”

 

The young woman stopped what she was doing but smiled at him in the mirror. The young man froze, overcome by her beauty, unable to breathe.

 

The old man stood up and struck the ground with his cane. There was a flash of light so bright that the boy was forced to close his eyes. When he opened them again he saw a large bird spreading its wings and inviting him to mount. He climbed onto the bird’s back and was carried through the air until he reached the window of the king’s daughter. He alighted carefully and softly entered the room. The king’s beautiful daughter was in front of the mirror combing her long black hair. The youth plucked one hair only. The young woman stopped what she was doing but smiled at him in the mirror. The young man froze, overcome by her beauty, unable to breathe. When he took her hand, she came willingly as if she had been expecting him. She rode beside him on the bird’s back and so they flew until they reached the king who owned the Rice-Bearing Tree. The princess stopped at the garden’s edge, watching the bird turn into an old man and the old man strike the ground with his cane and turn into a young woman with long black hair exactly like herself.

The youth presented this second girl to the king and in exchange he received a twig off the Rice-Bearing Tree. However, when the king went up to the girl to hold her, she became an old man tapping the ground with his stick. The king was dumbfounded. Then the old man turned into a bird. The princess and the youth rode on his back with the twig off the Rice-Bearing Tree and traveled through the air until they came to the king who owned Bulbul as-Siah. The young woman dismounted and remained in the orchard holding the twig of the Rice-Bearing Tree while the bird changed into a Rice-Bearing Tree. The young man went into the king’s presence carrying what the king thought was the Rice-Bearing Tree and he took the cage of woven cane that held Bulbul as-Siah.

When the king went to touch the tree, it became an old man holding a cane to guide him. The king could not believe what he was seeing. The old man changed into a bird once more and carried the princess and the youth on his back with the twig of the Rice-Bearing Tree and the cage of Bulbul as-Siah. They flew a long way above valleys and plains until they reached the boy’s sister in the gardener’s house. There the bird changed back into his old self again. Brother and sister thanked the old man and bid him goodbye and he returned to his own city.

The sister was overjoyed to see her brother. She kissed him and kissed the princess too. Then she took the twig of the Rice-Bearing Tree and planted it in the garden in front of the house. In the blink of an eye it grew into a large and shady tree with branches stretching to the sky! Next the girl opened the cage of woven cane. Bulbul as-Siah flew out beating his wings and warbling as he fluttered above their heads. He perched on the Rice-Bearing Tree, shaking the grains of rice that sparkled in the sunlight and flashed rainbow colors as they danced to his song.

“Are you perfectly happy now, dear Sister?” asked the young man.

“My happiness will be complete with your happiness when you marry the princess,” she replied.

So the young man married the princess, his sister was delighted, and all three were contented living together. The people of the city shared their joy; they came in crowds to witness the wonders of Bubul as-Siah and the Rice-Bearing Tree as well as the radiance of the twin brother and sister with their gold and silver hair.

The news eventually reached the palace. So the king’s son decided to go and see for himself. When he arrived he was dazzled by the magical scene: liveliness and color and beauty and happy faces. Suddenly the Nightingale-that-Speaks perched on the Rice-Bearing-Tree right in front of the prince, and looking directly at him, sang:

“I am Bulbul as-Siah.
I
bring you no distress
Misfortunes
even less
But I ask you to guess:
Is
it a likely thing
That the wife of a king
Into the world would bring
A
kitten and a puppy dog?
No! She gave birth to a boy and a girl,
One with a lock of silver and one with a golden curl!”

The people stared at the king’s son while he looked back at the crowd. Among the rest, his eye fell on a young man with a lock of silver in his hair and next to him a young girl with a lock of gold. The sight troubled and confused him so he ordered the bird:

“Repeat your song, Bird! Sing again!”

The bird raised his head and flapped his wings and repeated in a melodious voice:

“I am Bulbul as-Siah
I bring you no distress
Misfortunes
even less
But I ask you to guess:
Is
it a likely thing
That the wife of a king
Into the world would bring
A
kitten and a puppy dog?
No! She gave birth to a boy and a girl,
One with a lock of silver, one with a golden curl.”

The bird then fluttered down to where the twins were standing. At last the king’s son understood that these were his own two children, that he had been at fault and had wronged his wife. He ran to his son and daughter and clasped them to his heart and wept. Then they all proceeded to the palace of isolation. The king’s son went to his wife and kissed her and asked her forgiveness. He promised that they would live happily to the end of their days with their children beside them.

When the wicked old midwife and the two sisters heard what happened, they exploded in anger and died on the spot.

May you, O listeners, live long and happy lives!

__________________________________

From Pearls on a Branch. Used with permission of Archipelago Books. Copyright © 2018 by Najla Jraissaty Khoury.




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