The Tale of The Three Apples

A Wonderful Wise Old Arabian Tale
from The Book of A Thousand Nights and A Night

to read online

Translated by Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890) *
Illustrated by Jef Franssen
comments & analysis in not one but three Addendums >>

"I have a queasy craving for an apple, to smell it
and bite a bit of it."
One night the Caliph Harun al-Rashid summoned his Wazir Ja'afar and said to him:
"I desire to go down into the city and question the common folk concerning the conduct of those charged with its governance. Those of whom they complain, we will depose from office and those whom they commend we will promote."
"Hearkening and compliance", said the Wazir Ja'afar.

So together with the Eunuch Masrur, the Caliph and Ja'afar went down to the town. They walked about the streets and markets and, as they were threading a narrow alley they came upon a very old man with a fishing-net and a crate to carry small fish on his head, and in his hand a staff. The Caliph accosted him and asked: "O, Shaykh, what be thine occupation?" and the poor man answered: "O, my lord, I am a fisherman with a family to keep and I have been out between midday and this time and not a thing has Allah made my portion wherewithal to feed my family. I cannot even pawn myself to buy them supper and I hate and disgust my life and I hanker after death."
The Caliph had an idea. "Say me, will you return with us to the Tigris' bank and cast your net on my luck. Whatsoever turns up I will buy of you for an hundred gold pieces?"
The man rejoiced when he heard these words. "On my head be it! I will go back with you." The fisherman returned with them to the river and made a cast. They all waited a while. Then the fisherman hauled in the rope and dragged the net ashore and there appeared in it a chest, padlocked and heavy.

The Caliph examined the chest, lifted it and found it to be weighty. He gave the fisherman two hundred dinars and sent him about his business. Whilst Masrur, aided by the Caliph himself, carried the chest to the palace. Once they were in the palace they set it down and lighted the candles.
Ja'afar and Masrur broke the chest open. In it they found a basket of palm-leaves corded with a fine smooth red yarn. This they cut open and they saw a piece of carpet that they lifted out. In the piece of carpet was a woman's mantilla folded in four. Unfolding the mantilla they came upon a young lady, fair as a silver ingot, slain and cut into nineteen pieces.
The Caliph looked upon her and cried: "Alas!" and tears ran down his cheeks and turning to Ja'afar he said: "O dog of Wazirs, shall folk be murdered in our reign and be cast into the river to be a burden and a responsibility for us on the Day of Doom? By Allah, we must avenge this woman on her murderer and he shall be made die the worst of deaths! Now, as surely as we are descended from the Sons of Abbas, if thou bring us not him who slew her, that we do her justice on him, I will hang thee at the gate of my palace, thee and forty of thy kin and kin by thy side". And the Caliph was wroth with exceeding rage. Ja'afar begged to give him three days delay. And the Caliph granted him this.

So Ja'afar returned to his own house, full of sorrow, and saying to himself: "How shall I find the murderer of this damsel, so that I can bring him before the Caliph? If I bring other than the murderer, it will be laid to my charge by the Lord: in very truth I do not know what to do."
Ja'afar kept his house three days and on the fourth day the Caliph asked him: "Where is the murderer of the damsel?" to which Ja'afar answered: "O, Commander of the Faithful, am I an inspector of murdered folk that I should know who killed her?"
The Caliph was furious at his answer and ordered to have him hanged before the palace-gate. He also ordered a crier to go through the streets of Baghdad and cry out: " Who would see the hanging of Ja'afar, the Barmaki, Wazir of the Caliph, with forty of the Barmecides, his cousins and kinsmen, before the palace-gate, let him come and let him look!"

The people flocked out from all the quarters of the city to witness the execution of Ja'afar and his kinsmen, not knowing the cause. And they wept for Ja'afar and his cousins of the Barmecides who were made to stand underneath the gallows in readiness for execution. But whilst every eye was looking for the Caliph's signal, lo and behold! a young man, fair of face and neat of dress and of favour like the moon raining light, with eyes black and bright, and brow flower-white, and cheeks red as rose and young down where the beard grows, and a mole like a grain of ambergris, pushed his way through the people till he stood immediately before the Wazir. And he said to him: "Safety to thee from this strait, O Prince of the Emirs and Asylum of the poor! I am the man who slew the woman ye found in the chest, so hang me for her and do her justice on me!"
When Ja'afar heard the youth's confession he rejoiced at his own deliverance, but grieved and sorrowed for the fair youth. And whilst they were yet talking, behold, another man well stricken in years pressed forwards through the people and thrust his way amid the populace till he came to Ja'afar and the youth, whom he saluted saying: " Ho thou the Wazir and Prince sans-peer! believe not the words of this youth. Of a surety non murdered the damsel but I. Take her wreak on me this moment. For if you do not, I will require it of thee before Almighty Allah." Then the young man said: "O, Wazir, this is an old man in his dotage who doesn't know what he said ever. I am he who murdered her, so do thou avenge her on me!" "O my son, said the old man, thou art young and desirest the joys of the world. I am old and weary and surfeited with the world. I will offer my life as a ransom for thee and for the Wazir and his cousins. No one murdered the damsel but I. So Allah upon thee, make haste to hang me, for no life is left in me now that she is gone."

The Wazir marvelled much at all this strangeness and, took the young man and the old man to the Caliph. After kissing the ground seven times between his hands, he said: "O Commander of the Faithful, I bring thee the murderer of the damsel!" "Where is he," asked the Caliph and Ja'afar answered: "This young mans says, I am the murderer; and this old man giving him the lie says, I am the murderer. And behold, here are the twain standing before thee." The Caliph looked at the old man and at the young man and asked: "Which of you killed the damsel?"
The young man replied: "No one slew her save I." And the old man answered: "Indeed none killed her but myself." Then said the Caliph to Ja'afar: "Take the twain and hang them both." But Ja'afar rejoined: "Since one of them was the murderer, to hang the other were mere injustice."
"By Him who raised the firmament and dispread the earth like a carpet," cried the youth, "I am he who slew the damsel." And he went on to describe the manner of her murder, the basket, the mantilla and the bit of carpet, in fact all that the Caliph had found upon her. So the Caliph was certified that the young man was the murderer. Whereat he wondered and asked him: "What was the cause of thy wrongfully doing this damsel to die and what made thee confess the murder and what brought thee here to yield up thy life, and what made thee say, Do her wreak upon me?"

The youth answered: "Know, O Commander of the Faithful, that this woman was my wife and the mother of my children. She was also my first cousin and the daughter of my paternal uncle, this old man who is my father's own brother. When I married her she was a maid and Allah blessed me with three male children by her. She loved me and served me and I saw no evil in her, for I also loved her with fondest love.
Now on the first day of this month she fell ill with grievous sickness and I fetched the physicians to her. But recovery came to her little by little and, when I wished her to go to the Hamman-bath, she said: There is something I long for before I go to the bath and I long for it with an exceeding longing. To hear is to comply, said I, what is it?
She said: I have a queasy craving for an apple, to smell it and bite a bit of it. I replied: Hadst thou a thousand longings I would try to satisfy them!
I went immediately into the city and sought for apples but could find none. Yet, had they cost a gold piece each, I would have bought them. I was vexed at this and went home and said: O daughter of my uncle, by Allah, I can find none! She was distressed, being yet very weakly. And her weakness increased greatly on her that night. I felt anxious and alarmed on her account. As soon as morning dawned I went out again and made the round of the gardens, one by one, but found no apples anywhere.
At last there met me an old gardener who told me: O my son, this fruit is a rarity with us and is not now to be found save in the garden of the Commander of the Faithful of Bassorah, where the gardener keeps it for the Caliph's eating. I returned to my house troubled by my ill-success; and my love for my wife and my affection moved me to undertake the journey.
I set out and travelled fifteen days and nights, going and coming, and bought her three apples from the gardener for three dinars. But when I went in to my wife and set them before her, she took no pleasure in them and let them lie by her side. For her weakness and fever had increased on her and her malady lasted without abating ten days, after which she began to recover health. So I left my house and went to my shop and sat there buying and selling.
About midday behold, a great ugly black slave, long as a lance and broad as a bench, passed my shop holding in his hand one of the three apples wherewith he was playing. I asked him: O my good slave, tell me where thou took that apple, that I may get the like of it? He laughed and answered: I got it from my mistress. For I had been absent and on my return I found her lying ill with three apples by her side, and she said to me: My horned wittol of a husband made a journey for them to Bassorah and bought them for three dinars. So I ate and drank with her and took this one from her. When I heard such words from the slave, O Commander of the Faithful, the world grew black before my face. Immediately I arose and locked up my shop and went home beside myself for excess of rage. I looked for the apples and finding only two of the three asked my wife: O my cousin, where is the third apple? Raising her head languidly she answered: I don't know, O son of my uncle, where 'tis gone!
This convinced me that the slave had spoken the truth, so I took a knife and coming behind her got upon her breast without a word said and cut her throat. Then I hewed off her head and her limbs and wrapping her in her mantilla and a rag of carpet, hurriedly sewed up the whole, which I set in a chest. Locking it tight, I loaded it on my he-mule and threw it into the Tigris with my own hands. So Allah upon thee, O Commander of the Faithful, make hast to hang me, as I fear lest she appeal for vengeance on Resurrection Day.
For, when I had thrown her into the river, I went back home where I found my eldest son crying. Yet he knew nothing of what I had done with his mother. I asked him: What has made thee weep, my boy? And he answered: I took one of the three apples which were by my mammy and went down into the lane to play with my brothers when behold, a big long black slave snatched it from my hand and said: Whence has thou this? I said: My father travelled far for it, and brought if from Bassorah for my mother who was ill and two other apples for which he paid three ducats. He took no heed of my words and I asked for the apple a second and a third time. But he cuffed me and kicked me and went off with it. I was afraid lest my mother should swinge me on account of the apple. So for fear of her I went with my brother outside the city and stayed there till evening closed in upon us. By Allah, O my father, say nothing to her of this or it may add to her ailment!
When I heard my child's words I knew that the slave had foully slandered my wife, the daughter of my uncle. And I was certified that I had slain her wrongfully. So I wept with exceeding weeping and presently this old man, my paternal uncle and her father, came in. I told him what had happened and he sat down by my side and wept and we ceased not weeping till midnight. We have kept up mourning for her these last five days and we lamented her in the deepest sorrow for that she was unjustly done to die.
This came from the gratuitous lying of the slave, the blackamoor. And this was the manner of my killing her. So I conjure thee, by the honour of thine ancestors, make haste to kill me and do her justice upon me, as there is no living for me after her!"
The Caliph marvelled at his words and said: "By Allah the young man is excusable. I will hang none but the accursed slave and I will do a deed which shall comfort the ill-at-ease and suffering, and which shall please the All-glorious King." Then he turned to Ja'afar and said to him: "Bring before me this accursed slave who was the sole cause of this calamity; and, if thou bring him not before me within three day, thou shalt be slain in stead."
Ja'afar fared forth weeping and saying: "Two deaths have already beset me, not shall the crock come off safe from every shock. In this matter craft and cunning are of no avail. But He who preserved my life the first time can preserve it a second time. By Allah, I will not leave my house during the three days of life which remain to me. Let the Truth, whose perfection be praised, do as He will."

So Ja'afar kept his house three days. On the fourth day he summoned the Kazis and the legal witnesses and made his last will and testament. He was about to take leave of his children when a messenger from the Caliph arrived. "The Commander of the Faithful is in the most violent rage that can be, and he sends to seek thee and he swears that the day shall certainly not pass without thy being hanged unless the slave be forthcoming." When Ja'afar heard the words of the messenger, he wept. And his children and his slaves and all who were in the house wept with him.
He had already bidden adieu to everybody except his youngest daughter. For he loved this wee one, who was a beautiful child, more than all his other children. He went to her and kissed her, weeping bitterly at the thought of parting from her. He pressed her to his breast when he felt something round inside the pocket of her dress and asked: "O my little maid, what is that in thy pocket?" "O my father, she replied, "it is an apple with the name of our Lord the Caliph written upon it. Rayhan, our slave, brought it to me four days ago and would not let me have it untill I gave him two dinars for it."
When Ja'afar heard speak of the slave and the apple, he was glad and put his hand into his child's pocket and drew out the apple and knew it. Rejoiced he shouted out: "O ready Dispeller of trouble!"
Then he asked for the slave to be brought to him. And he said to him: " Fie upon thee, Rayhan! whence has thou this apple?"
"By Allah, O my master," he replied, " though a lie may get a man once off, and well off, again and again. I did not steal this apple from thy palace nor from the gardens of the Commander of the Faithful. The fact is that five days ago, as I was walking along one of the alleys of this city, I saw some little ones at play and this apple in the hand of one of them. So I snatched it from him and beat him and he cried and said, O youth this apple is my mother's and she is ill. She told my father how she longed for an apple. So he travelled to Bassorah and bought her three apples for three gold pieces and I took one of them to play with. He wept again, but I paid no heed to what he said and carried it of and brought it here where my little lady bought if of me for two dinars of gold. And this is the whole story."
When Ja'afar heard his words he marvelled that the murder of the damsel and all this misery had been caused by his own slave. He grieved for the relation of the slave to himself, while rejoicing over his own deliverance, and he repeated these lines:
If ill betide thee through thy slave
make him forthright thy sacrifice:
a many serviles thou shalt find
but life comes once and never twice.
Then he took the slave's hand and, leading him to the Caliph, related the story from first to last. And the Caliph marvelled with extreme astonishment, and laughed till he fell on his back and ordered that the story be recorded and be made public amongst the people. But Ja'afar said: "Marvel not, O Commander of the Faithful, at this adventure, for it is not more wondrous than the History of the Wazir Nur al-Din Ali of Egypt and his brother Shams al-Din Mohammed."
"Out with it", said the Caliph, "But what can be stranger than this story?" And Ja'afar answered: "O Commander of the Faithful, I will not tell it thee, save on the condition that thou pardon my slave. And the Caliph rejoiced: "If it be indeed more wondrous than that of the three apples, I grant thee his blood, and if not I will surely slay thy slave." So Ja'afar began in these words the Tale of Nur al-Din Ali and his Son Badr al-Din Hasan:

"Know, O Commander of the Faithful, that in time of yore the land of Egypt was ruled by a Sultan endowed with justice and generosity...."

But here, we have to interrupt Ja'afar as his story is another tale, for another night.
And we have not quite finished this one yet.


To Hear is To Comply

... what kind of nonsense is this,

or is it?

Right at the beginning of the story the Wazir Ja'afar says:" Hearkening and compliance", when the Caliph tells him of his intention to go into the city and question common folk regarding the conduct of its governors. Later when the young man, our murderer, is relaying his story, his response to his wife's longing for an apple is: To hear is to comply.
This sentence pops up over and over again in The Book of A Thousand Nights and A Night.

But what kind of nonsense is this:
Hearkening and compliance: to hear is to comply.
What about simply saying no! You can always say no. But can you really?

Imagine a dancer dancing to a wonderful piece of music, completely in tune with the music. Can he dance against the music? Can he dance off the beat? Can he say no to the music?
No, true dancers cannot do that. It goes against everything within them and however hard they try, they simply cannot ignore the musical rhythm. To hear is to comply.

That is the same in life. If you are in tune with life, with your body, with yourself, you hear that 'music' that fills you and your world and that feeds you, energizes you, soothes you and guides you from morning to evening. Going against it will not only cost too much of your energy, but also break the harmony and ease of your life.

Listen to the music and you will sleep at night
Listen to the music and you will wake up fresh and bright
Listen to the music and you will dance and play during the day.

A true governor would hear that music that same music that told the Caliph to go down into the city and question the common folk concerning the conduct of those charged with its governance. Unfortunately, I know none today who hear this music.
Sleepwalking in their dreams they often call democracy, our current governors do not hear the fine tunes of the Shepherd's whistle nor the bleating cries of us sheep. Instead they have formed close knitted packs just as lost and astray dogs do.
What they hear is their own barking. To hear is to comply. Not such nonsense after all.
Brigitte Franssen, 2010

The Fisherman's Song

Without luck what is learning?
Remember the fisherman at the very beginning of the story. When he met the Caliph, he was gently strolling along while softly singing a song to himself. This is the song the fisherman sang.
The Fisherman's Song

They say me: Thou shines a light
to mankind with thy lore
as the night which the Moon does uplight!

I answer: A truce to your jests and your gibes.
Without luck what is learning?
A poor devil wight!
if they take me to pawn
with my lore in my pouch
with my volumes to read
and my ink-case to write.
For one day's provision they never could pledge me
as likely on Doomsday to draw bill at sight.

How poorly, indeed, does it fare with the poor
with his pauper existence and beggarly plight.
In summer he fails provisions to find.
In winter the firepot is his only delight.
The street-dogs with bite and with bark to him rise.
And each losel receives him with bark and with bite.
If he lifts up his voice and complains of his wrong
none pities or heeds him, however he's right.
And when sorrows and evils like these he must brave
his happiest homestead were down in the grave.
Extracted from the Tale of the Three Apples
from The Book of A Thousand Nights and A Night

And wasn't it the fisherman's luck that he met the Caliph that day who paid him 200 dinars for his next catch.
And wasn't it on the Caliph's luck that the fisherman caught the mysterious chest that lead to this whole story that made the Caliph marvel with astonishment and laugh till he fell on his back when he heard it?
And isn't it our luck that the Caliph ordered to have this wonderful strange story recorded and be made public?
Find out why in our Addendum 'And Afterwards'.

And Afterwards

Enlightening instances & examples
And afterwards.
the works and words of those gone before us
have become instances and examples
to men of our modern day,
that they may peruse
the annals of antique peoples
and all that has betides them,
and be thereby guided and enlightened.
This is an extract from the Introduction to the Arabian tales
'A Thousand Nights and A Night'.
A more complete extract can be found in Book of Tales'
welcome page  >>

Besides the phrase 'to hear is to comply', the wise words of the fisherman and the riddling lines Ja'afar repeats almost at the end of the story, there are two more issues in the Tale of the Three Apples that stand out for me.

The first one is that if the young man had not acted with such haste in his anger and rage none of it would have happened. The Tale of the Three Apples is, therefore, a beautiful showcase of the pitfalls of anger (for me anyway).

And the second is the Wazir Ja'afar who despite the threat of being hanged if he doesn't find the murderer, doesn't go off like a headless chicken, hunting for a murderer in all kind of places. Instead he keeps his house for three days, staying true to himself and putting his trust in Allah and the Truth.
As a young girl I was strongly convinced that this only works in fairytales. But now that I am older I can tell you that I have seen people for whom this actually works. Defying any human logic quite hazardous situations come to a good end for them in rather easy ways, indeed.
Brigitte Franssen, 2010
~ The End ~

* Book of Tales' in house writer and poet took the liberty of slightly updating the language and making a few minor modifications to make the tale easier to read. No changes were made however that affected the story in itself.

More Traditional Tales  >>
© Brigitte Franssen 2010
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