Praise be to Allah, Scheherazade is married to the Sultan Sharyar. All the many brides of the Sultan, who came before her have been put to death on the first morning of their marriage. It is late in the night, and the dawn is but a few hours away. The newly weds cannot sleep, and Scheherazade begins to tell her husband a story.
There was once a merchant who was rich in cattle and camels. He lived in the country with his wife and family and devoted himself to farming. Now, Allah in his wisdom had given him the power to understand the speech of all kinds of animals and birds. But this great gift came with a condition: he must not tell any human being what he heard the animals say or he would surely die on the spot.
One evening he was sitting by the stables while he watched his children playing in the hay, when he heard his bull talking in his deep low voice:
“Oh donkey,” he was saying to his fellow animal. “How come you have the best barley, the freshest water, and the easiest life? You stay here indoors all day while the men wait upon you like servants, sweeping your stall, and brushing your coat until it shines. But as for me, they lead me out to work at the call of the dawn prayer. The men make me wear a thing called a yoke around my shoulders and it is heavy and uncomfortable. They crack whips over my back and force me to pull the plough through the fields from morning to sunset. My life is nothing but toil and trouble. But your duties are light and pleasant. Once every two weeks, you carry the master to the market on your back. He is not fat, and the burden is not great, and on the way he learns to like you and appreciate you. Your life is so much better than mine. Dear donkey, pray do help me. Tell me how I can live like you?”
You can imagine how the merchant was intrigued by this conversation, and how he tuned in his ears in to make sure that he did not miss a word. He heard the donkey laugh with a great Eeeee-ore! and reply to the bull:
“Why you big old fool! You are ten times as strong as I am, and yet you let the humans treat you without any respect for your superior force. Don’t you have any sense? Do your horns grow inside your head where your brains should be? Listen to your wiser and better brother, and your problems shall be done and dusted. Do not show willingness for work, or of course the men will take advantage of you. When they come in the morning, and try to place the thing called a yoke over your neck, toss your head. When they try to drive you out to the fields, lie down in your manger and refuse to move. They cannot make a great hulk like you even budge an inch if you do not wish it. Bellow like you are angry or ill. They will soon get the message and leave you alone.”
The merchant heard all the words of the donkey, and he was curious to see whether the bull would heed his advice. It was therefore not entirely surprising to him when, the next morning, the steward came to him, looking anxious and worried and and said:
“Sir, something has got into the bull. Perhaps it is a demon, or perhaps he is ill. When we try to put the yoke on his neck, he tosses his head so that we cannot manage it. When we try to drive him out of the stall, he bellows at us and paws the ground with his front leg. And now, finally, he is lying down in the straw. What are we to do sir? We cannot force the bull to go out into the fields if he does not wish it. He is far to big and strong.”
The merchant understood only too well what was wrong with the bull. He was not ill, and no demon had bedevilled him. All that had happened was that he was following the advice of his friend the donkey. The merchant had already decided what must be done. He would teach the donkey a lesson. He said to his steward:
“If the bull does not wish to work, then let him take a well earned rest. Put the yoke on the donkey, and make him plough the fields today, for it is only fair that he takes his share of the hard work.”
And following their master’s orders, the men placed the yoke over the shoulders of the donkey, and they dragged him out to the fields. When he stubbornly dug his heels into the ground, they cracked whips over his back. He had no choice but to pull the heavy plough through the earth all day, even though the sun was hot, and his mouth was dry. When at last he came back to his stall in the evening, his legs were weak and and his whole body was weary. He saw the bull lying down in clean straw, looking rested and happy. Indeed the bull welcomed him home cheerily saying:
“My true friend, the kind and wonderful donkey, I have done exactly as you advised me, and today I have enjoyed rest, water, and good food. I thank you from the bottom of my bull’s heart for your words of wisdom.”
But the donkey had little to say just then. He was unusually quiet beacuse he was so weary. He took a long drink of water and lay down in his hay, utterly exhausted by his day’s work.
When the morning came, the merchant rose early for he wanted to see how his animals had faired. He peeped in through the window of the stables and he saw that the bull was swishing his tale happily. They donkey was still lying down in his straw, feeling less than his best. The bull was saying:
“I am so looking forward to another day’s rest. When the men come for me, I shall again toss my head, paw the ground, and bellow with my great voice. Then I shall lie down and they will not be able to lead me out to work.”
As the donkey stood up, he felt that his legs were still shaky from the previous day’s toil in the fields. When he heard the bull’s plans to stay at home, he reflected: “Oh foolish me! I am not half as clever as I thought. I gave the bull good advice, but I did not foresee how it would rebound on me and how I would pay for it. Now I must play a trick on him, or I shall suffer once more.”
And so now he said to the bull:
“My friend, I have advised you well once, and now I shall advise you again. When the men come today, do not toss your head and refuse to take the yoke. Nor should you bellow with rage or lie down in your straw, if you care for your life. For yesterday, I heard the merchant speaking to his steward. He gave orders that if the bull does not work, he should take him to the butcher and make meat for the poor people, and leather for shoes and saddles.”
The bull thanked the donkey for once again giving him wise advice, and when the men came to fetch him from the stall, he willingly took the yoke and went out to the fields for his day’s work.
The merchant saw all that had happened, and all day long he was laughing and smiling to himself whenever he thought of the trick that he had played on the donkey.
Now the merchant had a wife, whom he had been married to for many years, and whom he loved dearly. She did not fail to notice that he was smiling to himself all day, and she asked him the reason. He said:
“My beloved, I am laughing at a conversation that I overheard between the animals, but I cannot tell it to you for I will surely die on the spot. Long ago, I prayed to Allah that I should understand the speech of all kinds of creatures, and in return for this favour I offered that if ever I should betray what I heard to another human soul, then I should die immediately.”
The merchant’s wife only grew more curious when she heard this reply, and demanded more and more vehemently that he should tell her what he had heard the animals say and that she should share in his amusement.
“But I shall surely die if I tell you!” he protested.
“Nonsense! There can be no secrets between man and wife. I shall leave you if you do not tell me! “ she replied.
The argument went on so long that the merchant could bear her sulking no longer. He sat down to write his will and worked with his steward to make sure that all his affairs were in order and his debts were paid before he died. Then he called all his family and his servants to a meeting and told them of his decision:
“This evening I shall relate to my wife what I heard of the conversation between the bull and the donkey, and then I must surely die. And therefore this is my last farewell. May Allah be praised and always be with you.”
And so saying, he went about the family and servants distributing small gifts so that they would remember him well.
Now when Scheherazade reached this part of the story, she said to the Sultan:
“But great one, I must halt my tale, for the sunlight is at our window and it is time to rise and meet whatever the day holds in store for us.”
And the Sultan, who had been listening very intently to the tale, and was greatly amused by it, was anxious to hear what happened next. Would the merchant really tell his wife what had happened, and die on the spot? He begged Scheherazade to finish the tale, but the call to Prayer was already echoing around the rooftops of the palace, and the maids were busy sweeping the courtyards.
The wise and lovely woman stroked the Sultan’s head, and said: “If it so pleases you, great master, I shall finish telling the tale this following night.”
And as the Sultan so wanted to know the end of the story, he gladly agreed to her suggestion, and Scheherazade lived through that day as his queen. The following night, she continued her story of the merchant:
All of the merchant’s household was in tears and even the dogs got to hear of the terrible news and began to howl. Only the cockerel strutted about the farm looking as proud and as pleased with himself as usual. He made his call to the hens:
The behaviour of the cockerel angered the farm dogs who said:
“Why do you make merry when we are in mourning for the master? Have you not heard that he is about to die? Do you not have any respect for him?”
And the proud cockerel replied:
“I am not sorry for the master. I have 50 wives and he has but one. He should understand better how to behave with his wife.”
And it so happened that the merchant, was sitting in his study overlooking the farmyard, and when he overheard this conversation, he felt ashamed that he had given in to despair and not handled the situation better. He thought to himself:
“I am shrewd in business, and know all there is to know about farming, but in my own home I am like a fool, and understand nothing of diplomacy. I must be as cunning as…. as the donkey.”
And with new hope in his heart, he went to his wife’s room, and knocked softly on the door: His wife’s voice called out from within:
“Are you now ready to tell me what you heard the animals say that was so amusing?”
And the merchant replied that he was ready, and he came into the room:
“My dear, it is all very simple,” he explained. “The bull spoke like this:”
And the donkey replied like this:
And then the dogs said:
and the cockerel said:
And when she heard her husband speak like this, the wife laughed so much that she forgot her anger and was happy.
And that was the very first story of 1001 Nights that Scheherazade told the Sultan, enchanting and amusing the cruel tyrant with her words and in so doing softening his heart. When she had finished the tale, her sister, Dunyazad, who shared the room with them spoke up and said:
“Your excellence, do you wish my sister to tell you another tale? For she has a great many others, some even more wonderful than this one.
And the Sultan who was not sleepy, said that he would gladly hear another tale, if it was as entertaining as the one they had just heard, and so Scheherazade began the second story of 1001 Nights.