By ROB KEZELIS
This is the fourth of five chapters. It is highly recommended that you read it aloud to loved one in bed. Kids, too. If you haven’t read the first three chapters, start here.
As with every Persian Fairy Tale, there is but one way to begin the story:
There was being and non-being, there was none but God, who had three sons: Prince Jamshid, Prince Q-mars, and the youngest, Prince Khorshid (who controlled the Sun, light, divine wisdom, and was the only son who was self-born, without a mother). He was the King’s favorite because he was the bravest, strongest and wisest of all the King’s sons.
In the King’s garden there stood a huge pomegranate tree. Despite the tree’s size, it only grew fruit for one season, and even then, only three fruits. When these fruits grew and became ripe, they turned into three beautiful girls who grew up and became the wives of the three Princes.
After their marriages, the Princes promised to guard the tree as though it were more precious than all the gems and rubies in Persia. The pomegranate tree grew taller each year, but no buds or fruit grew on any of its limbs. The Princes all had children of their own. Prince Khorshid himself fathered three daughters, but only one son named Ali.
This is the story of Ali.
It was a hot summer. (Actually, all summers in Persia are hot.) At long last, the great King died in his sleep of old age. All over Persia, people mourned his passing. A wise, fair and gentle leader to his people, but a fierce warrior to his enemies. The King was greatly missed.
Prince Khorshid was proud of his son Ali, a tall, strong, but, willful lad. Ali’s 13th birthday was only a month away. In Persia, the number 13 is not unlucky. (other numbers are far worse in Persia.) As birthdays go, this was an important day, especially for the son of a prince. He had to prove himself to his father, his family, and most importantly to himself by taking a terrible journey.
The Persian deserts are wild and beautiful. They have snow topped mountains, huge rock cliffs, (which hid Bedouin tribes, not all of whom were friendly) beautiful rivers, and of course, sand. Endless seas of sand, with giant sand dunes that sang and whistled in the wind, and hidden sand drums that could collapse and bury a man and his camel in a single swallow.
The Persian desert also has great magic and dangers. Some dangers, like the Bedouins, are well known. These nomads could be your best friend one day, and your worst enemy the next. When angered, the fastest mountain lion could not run fast enough to escape them. The Bedouins have a famous saying: “I against my brothers; I and my brothers against my cousins; I and my brothers and my cousins against the world”. That is how the Bedouin explain what is important to them.
Ali was not worried about the Bedouin. He knew of other dangers hidden in the desert, but Ali did not worry about them either. In fact, Ali was not worried about anything. He was the Prince’s son, and his journey was going to be easy. Life was easy for Ali, and everything he wished for, Ali always got. Woe to the servant that refused a request by Ali.
Ali’s childhood was filled with toys, sweets, and animals. Unfortunately, even with the best sweets, he demanded more, with the best animals, he found fault, and the best toys were quickly broken or abandoned.
His tutors agreed that Ali was very bright, but they worried. Ali was too cocky, too proud, and much too lazy. They hinted to the Prince that the boy needed a stronger hand, but Prince Khorshid would not hear such talk.
As the time for his journey came near, his tutors tried even harder to teach him. But Ali got bored with these old men and their tales and did not listen. What did he care about genies, flying carpets, deadly vipers, or scorpions? What did it matter how much forage a horse needed each day? Who cared about how to find your direction in the midday sun? When he was Prince, Ali would hire the best guides to lead him. Why should he learn how to care for a camel to keep him from going lame? After all, he was Ali, the only son of the Prince.
The Prince was a good and just man, but where his son was concerned, his love blinded him. There was no question about it. The Prince’s son was a spoiled brat.
A week before the birthday, the Prince called in his son, the tutors and his top men to prepare for the journey.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Ali, my son, are you ready for your journey?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Dearest father, I am always ready.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The Prince smiled. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Good. Tomorrow before dawn we leave. We ride out to the great desert. That will take all day. We shall camp with you for one night. At that camp you will choose. After the next morning, you shall find your way back here alone. You will be tested many times on your travels, my son, so you must be prepared.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“After I choose? Choose what, dear father? What do I choose?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Son, you are permitted one choice. A camel or a horse. Everything else has been arranged. Everything else is all ready for you.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Excuse me, dear father. Did you say alone?Ã¢â‚¬Â
The Prince smiled and nodded again. Ali’s mouth dropped open. Just then, it all became clear. This journey was going to be a real test, a struggle against the desert, and all alone. When he barely heard his tutors’ lessons, he always thought his Ã¢â‚¬Å“journeyÃ¢â‚¬Â would be just like all his other trips, with dozens of camels and ponies, with servants, with endless food, sweets and water. He never thought that he would go alone. No pack camels, no servants, not even a guide?
Ali was shocked into total quiet. (The tutors thought that his silence was no bad thing.)
Finally, Ali realized that all those lessons were important. He should have listened to them instead of sleeping, or playing backgammon or chess. Ali felt like a little boy again, scared, unsure and very worried.
Ali could not sleep a wink that night.
They left before the sun rose. For a full day and night, they rode harder than he ever did before. When they got to their camp, it was dark. A tutor lit a fire, and they were soon drinking hot tea, and chewing dried goat meat. It was their first meal of the day.
The Prince sipped his tea and nodded to the head tutor. He brought out two animals, a huge white stallion, with a flowing mane, and a dusty, grungy, matted, sorry-looking camel, with two small humps.
Ali loved horses. Even at his age, he could tell that this was a noble creature. Strong, fast, and powerful. With a horse like this, he could cross a desert in one day when it would take three days by camel. The stallion carried a beautiful golden and leather saddle, trimmed with rubies and silver tassels. This was a royal horse, meant for a Prince, or better yet, his son.
Ali examined the steed closely. The more he looked, the more he fell in love with this animal. This was an easy choice. Only then did Ali notice that every single person was watching his every move. Suddenly, he realized that this was a test. He could barely recall when a tutor compared horses and camels, saying each had its use. In war, a horse was swift, powerful and easily controlled. In a desert, a camel could walk forever, and never complain.
Ah hah! That was it. The stallion was a trap, a beautiful trap, but still a trap. Horses in the shade needed 6 buckets of water a day. In the desert sun, they needed twice as much. Unless he found an oasis, his horse would die of thirst.
They did not pass any oasis that he noticed.
He looked at the horse one last time, then turned to the mangy camel. It was dusty with sand. The saddle was ugly. Yet, it could live for week in the desert.
With great regret, Ali chose the camel.
Every person, even his father, stood up and cheered. Ali was stunned. He passed the first test. No one had ever cheered him before. As the moon rose, everyone soon went to sleep.
When Ali woke up the next morning, the camp was totally deserted. There was a large pile of food, three goat’s bladders filled with water, and the sorry-looking camel munching on some scrub. Everyone left without waking him.
Ali rubbed the sleep from his eyes and after stretching, he climbed the nearest dune. The sun was already hot, even this early in the morning. He saw nothing but empty sand. No trail, no dust, nothing but endless seas of unmarked sand.
After a life filled with luxury and servants, Ali was alone for the first time in his life. He did not notice what direction they took to get here. That meant he did not know the way back. There was no hint of which way to go and no map or compass for him to follow.
As he slid down the dune, back to his supplies, tears began to form in his eyes.
Ali sat down on the hot sand and began to cry. He felt a nudge from the camel. Ali pushed the mangy beast away. His troubles were more important than some dirty animal.
What if he simply stayed? He didn’t have to move at all. He had food and water, and after a few days, his father would surely search for him. After all, he was the son of the Prince, the only son.
As his tears dried up, he looked for a tent to protect him from the sun. There was no tent. The sun burned hot in the sky. Ali sat back on the hot sand.
Ali heard a squawk far away. He looked up and saw what looked like a giant bird. As it got closer, Ali saw that it was no bird at all, but something much stranger. Finally, as it circled around him, he saw that it was a flying carpet, with a strangely dressed, bearded man sitting in the middle. The man had a huge hawk sitting on his shoulder. Ali could not tell whether the hawk or the strange man was squawking.
Like all Persian children, Ali had heard of flying carpets in fairy tales, but he did not believe that they really existed. Yet, here was one in front of his eyes.
The carpet stopped in mid-air, next to Ali’s camel. The camel calmly eyed the strange man and kept chewing on the scrub. The man jumped off the carpet and walked to the camel. The hawk flew off his shoulder and began circling lazily overhead.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“So, are you Ali, my mangy friend?Ã¢â‚¬Â he asked the camel, as he scratched the camel’s ears. The camel did not answer, but if he had, Ali could not be more shocked.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“No? You are not Ali? What a shame.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The strange man turned around and looked surprise to see Ali sitting on the sand. Ã¢â‚¬Å“So, that just leaves you. Are you Ali?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ali nodded with his mouth open.
The man was not impressed. He frowned, as though Ali was no better than a sharp stone in his shoe. The camel moved closer to the man and nudged him with his nose. The man took out a honey candy from his pocket and gave it to the camel.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Well, I suppose you will have to do. I am the Djin of the Desert, and I have been looking for you. Some call me Des.Ã¢â‚¬Â (Djin are male Genies.)
Not knowing what to say, but remembering how his father always treated guests, Ali stood up and walked to his supplies. He pulled out as large goat’s bladder of water and turned back to the strange man.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Sir Djin, would you like to share my water?Ã¢â‚¬Â
The Djin looked surprised. He took out another sweet, but this time stuffed it into his own mouth. (Djins were famous for their sweet tooth.) He muttered, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Maybe there is hope, despite all I heard.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The Djin grabbed the large bladder of water (which was taller and wider than the Djin) and drained it all in one huge gulp. He burped loudly. Ali had just seen one third of his water disappear. Ali picked up the second, even larger, bladder. He timidly held it out, and asked, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Do you need more, sir?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Perhaps I had better. Carpet flying is hot, dry work. I sit much closer to the sun, you know.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The Djin grabbed the second bladder, and emptied that as fast as the first one. This burp was twice as long as his earlier one. The Djin almost smiled. As he glanced at Ali’s supplies, Ali became worried. He only had one last goat’s bladder of water left. The rest of it had just disappeared like magic. The Djin saw his expression and began to laugh. (A Djin’s laughter could be very terrifying)
Ã¢â‚¬Å“No, Ali, I will gladly share your water, but I will not take it all from you. That last water bladder is yours to keep. But some food would be good. Just a small bite for a small Djin.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ali brought out the falafels, the humus and the dried goat’s meat. As small as the Djin was (shorter than Ali, and a bit thinner), he ate like a giant who had been kept unfed for a month of Sundays. Soon, Ali’s large pile of supplies looked like there was barely enough left for one day. And still, the Djin showed no sign of slowing down. Ali looked in amazement. The Djin did not seem to take the time to chew.
Finally, with one last burp, (this one at least a minute long), the Djin grinned and laid down on the sand.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Now, there’s a meal fit for a prince, or his son, or most importantly, their Djin. Ah, I have not eaten that well for quite some time. Thanks to you, Ali. You surprise me, for I did not expect you to have any manners. I was told that you were a spoiled child who cared for nothing but himself. Yet, you treat me like a guest. I am in your debt.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Sir, I . . . ah. . . er . . .Ã¢â‚¬Â Ali stammered without knowing what to say.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Let me guess, Ali. You had planned to stay and hope that your father would come looking for you. Am I right?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ali nodded the smallest of nods, as his face turned red.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“That won’t happen, Ali. Your father finds himself busy with a war. The Bedouin have attacked your kingdom. Much has happened in the last few days, and none of it is good. The war is not going well, and your father may not survive. This is the first MAJOR TRUTH that I give you, in thanks for your water.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“A Bedouin war party is heading here from the west. If they find you, they will take your fine camel and what little water you have left, and leave you with a smiling throat.Ã¢â‚¬Â He drew his finger across his neck like a knife. Ã¢â‚¬Å“That is the second MAJOR TRUTH, in thanks for your food. If you wish to live, you better leave now.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ali realized that the Djin was repaying his hospitality with news. A Bedouin war party? He nervously looked around him. He saw nothing but sand. He did not even know which way was west.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Finally, and only because your father the Prince asked me to come, I will answer one question and one question only. What do you wish to know?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ali thought hard. All he could think of was to escape the Bedouins.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Will you take me on your carpet and return me to my palace,Ã¢â‚¬Â he asked?
The Djin shook his head sharply.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“So, they were right. There is little hope for you. Foolish boy, can’t you see that this is a one man carpet? Do I look like a carpet taxi driver? Ha!Ã¢â‚¬Â he snorted.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“You have tests that you can only take. If you fail, you die. If you succeed, and I can’t see how, you become a man. That was the wrong question, Ali, and therefore, I have no more answers for you.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The Djin stood up, hugged the camel and took out yet another honey candy and gave it to the beast, muttering as he stood. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Fine animal, a truly fine animal. That kid does not know how lucky he is. What a shame. What a waste.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The Djin jumped on to his carpet, sat cross-legged in the middle and began to rise slowly. When the carpet was a hundred feet in the air, the Djin called down to him.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Ali, you young fool, what was your first desert lesson? This is the third MAJOR TRUTH, and this one is for free. And that’s only because I like your father.Ã¢â‚¬Â
With those words, the carpet seemed to gather itself together, like a horse ready to gallop, and then it shot forward like an arrow. As the carpet sped away, the Djin turned around and shouted, Ã¢â‚¬Å“TRUST. . .. YOUR . . . CAMEL!Ã¢â‚¬Â With those words, the Djin and his magic carpet quickly disappeared into the only cloud in the sky. A moment later, the cloud itself disappeared.
Dear reader, a Djin’s MAJOR TRUTHS are tricky things. Djins are famous liars, and their stories are a strange mix of lies and truth. But, as the fables say, when a Genie told you a MAJOR TRUTH, it was completely true. Or just maybe, a part of it was true. Then again, depending on the Djin, only a very small part of the TRUTH might be true.
To be fair to fable writers, none of them had ever heard a Djin actually tell a MAJOR TRUTH, so none of them could say how much truth a MAJOR TRUTH actually had, if any.
Some Djin were very bad, while others were just trouble makers. The wisest man could not tell which Djin was which. Even so, if a Djin had warned of war and of the Bedouin tribe heading his way, Ali had to move quickly.
The sun burned high in the sky.
After feeding and watering the Djin, there was not much left to pack. As he loaded his food, he thought about leaving the empty water bladders. It never hurt to have an extra water container, even empty. He reached for the his last full water bag, only to see that it was split on top. Had he lifted it, he would have poured out the last of his water. In the desert, a lack of water was a death sentence.
Ali wondered how that last bladder became damaged. When he first saw it, it was perfect. Perhaps the Djin caused his bag to tear? Hmmm, he thought. If so, he must be a bad Djin. Or this could be another test.
Ali did his best to pour the water from the torn bag into another one. As careful as he was, he still spilled almost a quarter of his precious water on the the sand. He watched the dry sand suck up the water like it had never existed. Ali closed up the good bladder and packed it on his camel. The rest of the water he started to lick out of the bag.
Ali thought for a bit, then he turned to the camel and let him dry out the torn bag.
The camel stuck out his huge tongue, and licked and licked until the bag was completely dry.
The sun burned even higher in the sky.
Ali got on the camel and sat for a while, wondering which way to go. Finally, he let the camel choose the path. Camels could smell water far away, so if there was an oasis anywhere nearby, he would find it. If Ali wanted to live, he needed more water. Maybe that was what the Djin meant about trusting his camel.
They began to ride. The camel slowly climbed one dune, and slowly went down the next. This went on for hour after hour. Every dune looked exactly alike There was no telling where he was. At first, Ali worried about their direction. He recalled that a good camel always knew the way home. Not for the first nor the last time, he wished that he paid attention to his tutors. He hoped that he was not heading towards the Bedouins.
The sun burned still higher in the sky.
Hour after hour, Ali road on. He wanted to make sure the camel went slowly, so as not to hurt himself. The camel kept a steady pace, never hurrying, never slowing.
Another sand dune, and then another, and yet another. And always the sun raged on, with incredible heat. The air was boiling with heat waves, pounding him, punishing him and drying his sweat before it even formed. Even the Bedouins would avoid riding in this heat.
When he began this ride, Ali searched all around him. He thought that if he spotted the Bedouins before they noticed him, maybe he could hide or escape.
That was hours ago. Now, he didn’t even bother to turn around. Even looking up to the horizon was becoming too much work.
The heat was horrible. It felt as though it were strangling him. Finally, when he could take no more, he stopped by a tall rock outcropping. It gave the tiniest bit of shade.
He got off the camel and grabbed the water bladder. The bladder was hot to the touch. Half full and hot as fresh tea. Even so, he took a massive gulp. Ali thought that if he let himself, he could easily swallow all of the water just like the Djin.
The camel nudged him. Then again. Finally, Ali took the water bladder and pointed the open end into the camel’s mouth he squirted a good amount into the camel’s mouth. As bad as he felt from the heat, Ali realized that the camel must feel the same way. Ali was amazed that the camel did not allow one drop to spill.
Ali saw nothing but dunes in each direction. This rock outcropping seemed to be the only one around. The camel moved over to the small shade and laid down. Even camels need to rest. If the camel felt anything like he did, then he was exhausted, too.
It was too hot to sleep. The sun was still too high in the sky. Not a cloud in the sky. No birds, not sound, just heat, endless heat.
Even in that heat, Ali began to doze.
The sun burned even hotter in the sky.
Suddenly, Ali woke up with a start. He heard a strange sound. Bedouins? Oh no! There was nowhere to hide or run.
Ali jumped up, and looked around. In one direction lay the setting sun. In the other, he saw his camel’s footprints, and behind that, a huge wall of dust. It seemed to be getting larger and larger. At first, he thought this was the Bedouin tribe attacking him. But he could see no camels or horses.
If Ali had been more alert, he would have known at once what it was. A huge sandstorm was heading directly for him. Already the wind was beginning to push at him. As Ali watched, he saw the wind erase his camel’s footprints. He turned to the camel who was already standing and alert. The camel was watching the storm’s approach just as carefully as Ali was.
The camel bent down on his front knees, and let Ali climb up. The very instant that Ali got on, the camel took off at a complete run. Ali had never been on a camel galloping so fast. Ali had raced ponies, even small horses, and the fastest of them would have had trouble keeping up with this camel.
On and on they sped, reaching larger dunes, and longer valleys. By now, Ali was better balanced and could turn around. The storm was following their path as though it was doing so on purpose. Ali had never heard of a camel running so long or so hard. And still the camel ran on. In the distance, Ali began to see a long rocky hill. Perhaps they might find a cave there. Any shelter would help.
He turned around and saw that the sandstorm was directly behind them, and would soon take them over. If they were caught in this storm, there would be no way to even find a cave. If any cave existed.
Sandstorms could be mild and dusty, or they could be horrible. The worst storms would tear away your skin and leave nothing but your bones to dry in the sun. This storm looked even worse. Ali had never heard of the kind of storm behind him. He urged the camel to go faster, if that were even possible.
The camel was straining with each step, yet he still responded. But the storm was moving twice as fast, and it was getting very close. The swirling sands began to surround them. It was hard to see, and harder to breath.
Suddenly, the camel made a sharp turn to the left. Had Ali been one hair less talented as a rider, he would have been thrown off and lost for good in the sandstorm. Ali managed to hang on. Then he saw why the camel turned so suddenly. A huge cliff seemed to drop down forever. Had his camel not seen it, both of them would have fallen to their deaths.
Just as the full fury of the storm hit, the camel turned again, and slowed, inching his way forward. Ali could see nothing at all, and tried to hide from the brutal wind. The wind screeched and blew, the sand attacked his skin. Ali could no longer breath.
Just as suddenly, the camel made a sharp turn into a cave, and like magic, the storm stopped at the edge of a cave. Ali got off the camel, took off the water bag. This time he offered a drink to the camel first.
The camel was gasping as hard as Ali was. The camel took a long sip, again, not spilling a drop. Ali saw that the camel left some for him. Ali finished it off quickly. Even those last few drops felt like heaven.
Finally, Ali took a look around. He was in a long cave, one that twisted and turned like a snake. Beyond the first curve, he could hear the wild sandstorm outside. It seemed as though the storm was angry for not catching Ali. It shrieked and screamed with a fury Ali had never seen before.
There was a light coming from the other end of the cave.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“So, camel, here we are. Thank you. I don’t know why I am talking to you, but still, I thank you. You were wonderful in that storm.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The camel moved closer and Ali scratched him behind his ears.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Shall we go on, or shall we wait out the storm here?Ã¢â‚¬Â
The camel seemed to point with his head down into the cave. That made the choice easy. They started walking deeper into the cave. The further they walked, the lighter it got. By now, they could hear nothing of the raging storm. Soon, Ali could only hear the sound of his feet and the light clops of the camel’s feet.
Deep in the cave, Ali began to hear something else. A quiet, steady dripping sound. That could only mean one thing. Water.
For no reason, the camel suddenly stopped in his tracks. Ali did the same thing. Clearly, this camel knew quite a bit about things. If the camel was worried enough to stop, he might as well stop, too.
They found themselves in a large cave, filled with dark shadows. Ali was sure that that the camel was as thirsty as he, maybe even more so. Yet, the camel refused to move from his spot. They both stood there for what seemed like an eternity.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Patience, they show, don’t they? Especially the camel. A smart animal, that.Ã¢â‚¬Â Ali heard an ancient woman’s voice cackling like an old hen.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Who is there? Who are you? Show yourself, please,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Ali.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Who I am is unimportant. The question is, who are you?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I am Ali. I was on a journey when the storm hit, and I looked for shelter.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“So. You are Ali and you were on a journey and you looked for shelter. Are you sure that it was you looking, or your camel?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Well, honestly, both of us were looking, but I think my camel was better at finding it,Ã¢â‚¬Â Ali said, surprised at his own truthfulness and his tone. Just a day earlier, he would have been shouting orders and demanding his rights as the prince’s son. Now, all he wanted was to sleep and to have a sip of water.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Honesty, about an animal? You show promise, despite what I hear about you.Ã¢â‚¬Â The voice cackled some more. Whoever she was, she seemed very, very old.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Ma’am, may I water my camel? He has run hard, and I have none left.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Oh, that’s good, Ali, that is very good. You think of your camel first? Very good. Very well, your camel may go, but you MUST STAY.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The instant that she spoke those words, every muscle in Ali’s body froze. The camel trotted to the cave wall and began to lap up water. It seemed like an eternity, and still the camel drank and drank and drank. Even if he tried to disobey, he could not move an inch.
Thirsty camels can drink 20 gallons of water in a few minutes. His camel drank at least that much. He reminded Ali of how the Djin drank his water.
Finally, the camel stopped drinking, licked his lips, shook himself, and headed to the darkest part of the cave, from where that old voice came.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Ah, you are a fine animal. Really? Do you think so? Why, thank you, and the same to you,Ã¢â‚¬Â said the scratchy voice.
Try as he might, all Ali could see was the camel coming back, settling down right next to Ali, and falling asleep.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Oh, well, Ali. Go water yourself too,Ã¢â‚¬Â the voice said.
Ali ran to the water hole and drank handful after handful. Never had water tasted so sweet and lovely. Ali was ready to fill a water bladder, when he stopped. This was the old lady’s cave, and therefore, it was her water.
He bowed deeply, and said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Thank you two times, first for my camel, and then for me. May I fill a bag with your water? We have a long way to go.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The voice cackled loudly. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Polite for a second time? Oh very well, but shouldn’t you pick a water bag that is whole, not ripped?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ali looked down and saw that he grabbed the torn one. He found a good bag and filled it to the brim. How did this old woman know about the tear?
Ali bowed deeply, and and thanked her again. As he turned to leave, he realized that his camel was still asleep. Ali thought about waking him, but then, he sat next to him, leaned against him, and in the blink of an eye, Ali fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Outside the storm raged on like never before.
Sometime later, Ali woke up. He had no idea how much time had passed. He found himself laying flat on the ground, but with a blanket over him. The cave was cool and comfortable, but Ali ached all over. He looked around and saw his camel drinking again at the fountain.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Hello? Is anyone there? Hello?Ã¢â‚¬Â Ali asked. No answer. He joined the camel and drank more water, making sure that the water bags were full.
His stomach growled. He realized that the last time he ate was with his father. When the Djin ate most of his food yesterday, Ali did not even have as a bite. It had been at least a day since he had tasted any food.
Ali had learned an important lesson. Water was everything in the desert. He took the camel’s reins, and headed for the cave entrance. It was daylight now. As he walked, he felt strange pains in his knees and back. He rubbed his face, and jumped in shock. His face had a full beard. His hands had long nails, and his hair had grown past his shoulders. He looked at his hair, and it was gray. Worst of all, Ali felt old. Yet, his camel looked as young as before. This was serious magic. Ali did not like it at all.
He heard the cackling voice again, this time right from the mouth of the cave.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Ali, now you know how I feel.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“What have you done to me?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It was not me. It was the cave, the Djin, the water, and the storm.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“What? What do you mean?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“That Djin cast a spell that brought the storm. That storm brought you near to me in this cave. The water made you comfortable, but it made you sleep, and this cursed cave has made you old. If you sleep, you are cursed with age. This cave is filled with ancient magic, old, and evil magic. There is only one cure, and for that I need your help.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“What do you mean,Ã¢â‚¬Â Ali asked?
Ã¢â‚¬Å“You have a pomegranate tree at your palace. We need the fruit of it, you and I, prepared in a special way. I cannot leave here without it.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“But that pomegranate tree has no fruit.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Then, Ali, you and I will die.Ã¢â‚¬Â The wrinkled, ancient woman stepped out of the darkness and hobbled with a cane towards Ali. She looked at him curiously. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I am a young Genie, Ali, only 16, yet I have been here for a year. See what this cave has done to me. Without the fruit, we are doomed.Ã¢â‚¬Â
As they sat at the entrance, the Genie, who called herself Atusah, taught him of many possible ways to coax fruit from the tree. Although he could not cast a Genie’s spells, she taught him as best as she could. As he prepared to leave, Atusah called to him.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Ali, one more thing. For each night you spent here, two years passed outside. You slept for 3 straight days, so six years have passed outside since you went on your journey.Ã¢â‚¬Â
After Djins, Genies, flying carpets, and magic caves, Ali was sure that nothing could surprise him anymore. Still, he slept for three straight day? It felt like hours. Six years had passed? That was as strange as his becoming an old man. What kind of cursed cave was this?
The Genie continued, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Ali, follow this ridge to your right, or north, then turn right and head east. In a few short hours, you will see your palace. Good luck, and hurry back.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ali began to ride. If six years had passed, this family probably thought him dead. Worse yet, he looked and felt like an old man, wrinkled, dirty and with creaking bones. He wondered if he could get inside the gate. If no soldier recognized him, he would be turned away or arrested. With the Bedouin war going on, they might just kill him.
Just as Atusah described, the mountain ridge came to an end. He turned east and began to cross the last bit of the desert before he would find his home.
Two hours later, he recognized his father’s palace. Things had changed. There were many more guards at the gate, and several new towers had been built. Still, he could see his room and even saw the pomegranate tree that held the key to his future. Maybe.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“STOP, OLD MAN. Remove yourself from this place. You have no business here,Ã¢â‚¬Â said one of the guards at the gate. Each of them had a sharp sword out and ready.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Wait, I am Ali, and I have been cursed. Please call my father, the Prince.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The men laughed at his words. They pulled him off his camel, and dragged him across the ground to the prison cells.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We can have fun with this old man. Ali indeed! How dare you profane the name of our Prince’s dead son?Ã¢â‚¬Â With those words, they kicked him into a dark cell.
Ali did not know what to do. Six years was a long time. He looked like an old man, wrinkled, long hair and a long beard. No wonder no one believed him.
For three days and nights, he waited. Except for a little water each day, he heard and saw nothing. The guards ignored him. It was better than being beaten.
On the fourth day, as he dozed, his cell was opened and he was pulled roughly to his feet. Two guards dragged him outside. There he saw his old tutor standing with the leader of his father’s guard.
The tutor glared at Ali. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Where did you steal this camel, old man? Speak now, or I shall have your tongue cut out! Speak!Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Master Tutor, it is I, Ali. You gave me this camel yourself.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“SILENCE, YOU FOOL! How dare you lie to me?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Master Tutor, you gave me a choice of a beautiful horse and this camel. You even clapped when I chose the camel.Ã¢â‚¬Â
This time, the tutor started like he was slapped in the face.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“What say you? Describe this horse.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ali went into detail, describing the saddle, the horse and the beautiful flowing mane. Then he described meeting with the Djin, the storm and the cursed cave he found. When he finished, the tutor was not convinced.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“You are Ali? Liar! Prove it. What did I teach you?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Master Tutor, you did not teach me anything. But that was no fault of yours, but of mine. I wanted to play games rather than learn. For that I owe you an apology.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“You speak the truth, but the young Ali I knew would never have apologized. I do not believe you, old man. Your words are lies.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Master Tutor, you talked about the desert, about how much a horse eats and drinks, and how camels can cross great deserts. You tried hard to teach me, but my mind was as barren as the pomegranate tree in our garden.
With those words, the tutor finally believed Ali. Soon, water and food were brought out, and the tutor and Ali sat in the shade, eating and drinking. Once again, Ali told his story, this time, with great detail. Finally, Ali asked about his father.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Ali, your father is off warring against the Bedouins. His army have been gone for two years. We hear reports from nomads and scouts, but only very rarely. Ali, your two uncles died in battles past. You are alone here. Yet again, it seems as your camel saved you, Ali. But for the camel you would be dead.Ã¢â‚¬Â
After the meal, Ali and the tutor began to work with the pomegranate tree. For a full month they tried everything they knew. Nothing seemed to work. None of the Genie’s instructions had any impact. The tree stayed barren.
Finally, Ali thought of something. The cave water was as blessed as that cave was cursed. He found the camel’s bags, but to his regret, he saw that the water bags were empty. He opened one, and saw just a few drops of water left. He took the bag to the tree, then squeezed those few drops onto an open tree root. Then he waited.
That night a full moon appeared, hanging low in the sky. Ali tried to stay awake, but he was much too tired. He dreamed of djins, genies and flying carpets.
When the rooster greeted the morning sun, Ali woke up. Directly above him was the most perfect pomegranate fruit he had ever seen. He gathered some thin gold foil, then wrapped the fruit carefully in it.
He thanked the tutor and loaded his camel. He took the same path to find the Genie and give her the fruit. But even though he traveled on the same path as before, there was no mountain ridge. He rode for four hours, then six, then eight. The entire rocky ridge had disappeared, taking that cursed cave with it.
At nightfall, he stopped, and set up camp. He fed and watered his camel, then set up a small tent. Once he had a small fire going, Ali prepared some figs and humus. Before he could take a bite, Ali heard a familiar squawk far away. He added more fuel to the fire. Soon, he saw the carpet and the Djin in the moonlight. Ali waved. The Djin waved back. He landed his carpet close to the fire.
Without asking, Ali handed him a bag of water, and handed him a plate of figs and humus. The Djin snorted loudly between bites and gulps.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Ali, I heard that you had changed, but I could not imagine how much.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Dear Djin, you have not changed at all, except that you eat slower these days.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The Djin snorted again. Ã¢â‚¬Å“So what brings you here, Ali?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I search for the Genie Atusah, but her cruel cave seems to have disappeared.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“And why do you seek Atusah, Ali?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ali told him of his troubles, the pomegranate tree and the fruit he carried to her. The Djin picked up the fruit, unwrapped it, and examined it closely.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It is beautiful, and certainly a worthy gift to me.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Master Djin, I cannot share this with you. It is for Atusah only, and therefore not mine to share.Ã¢â‚¬Â He bravely reached for the fruit. As he did, the Djin disappeared and magically appeared behind him.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Behind you, Ali,Ã¢â‚¬Â as he tapped Ali on the shoulder.
Ali jumped and turned around quickly. Again he reached for the fruit, and yet again the Djin disappeared, re-appearing where he first sat.
Ali kept his hand out and waited. Finally, the Djin gave him back the fruit. Ali carefully rewrapped the fruit and sat down with the fire between him and the Djin.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Why cannot you not find this cave, Ali?Ã¢â‚¬Â the Djin asked.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Perhaps you know, Djin, but I do not. I rode the same path that brought me home.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The Djin finished the food on his plate, grabbed Ali’s plate, and finished that, and swallowed the last of Ali’s water. After a long burp, he sat back and smiled. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I must say, Ali, you always treated me right. Tomorrow morning, when you leave your tent, close your eyes tightly and turn around three times.Ã¢â‚¬Â
With those words, the Djin hopped back on his carpet. As he rose into the moonlight, Ali called out to him.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“But Djin, what do I do after that?Ã¢â‚¬Â
As the Djin flew off into the distance, Ali heard the Djin’s answer fading into the moonlight.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Then, you open your eyes, you fool!Ã¢â‚¬Â
To his surprise, sleep came easily. He dreamed of the cave, of the old lady and of his father.
The next morning, he crawled out of his tent, and remembered the Djin’s instructions. He closed his eyes tightly, and turned around three times. When he opened them, he found himself directly in front of the cave. He was sure this mountain range was not here when he arrived the night before. Ã¢â‚¬Å“More Djin magic,Ã¢â‚¬Â he thought to himself.
He grabbed his pomegranate and walked into the cave. The camel followed him closely.
When he got to the fountain, his camel immediately took to drinking. Ali wanted to find the Genie first. Finally, in the deepest, darkest corner, he found her. She was even older than before, and she was fast asleep. He could not rouse her.
Ali picked her up and took her to the cave’s fountain. He fed her water with his hands, then unwrapped the fruit for her. She woke up and looked at him, as though he were a stranger. Finally, her cloudy eyes recognized him.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Ali, is that you? I fear you are too late.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“No, Genie, I brought the fruit. Tell me what to do. Let me help you.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Atusah dozed some more. Finally, she pulled out a ruby and gold knife, and told Ali how to cut it open.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Be careful, and if you prick even on segment of fruit, we are lost. Take only the skin.Ã¢â‚¬Â
As carefully as he could, he followed her instructions. For what seemed like forever, they worked on the fruit, mixing in spices, taking out seeds, and using bits of skin. Ali did most of the work, for the Genie was much too weak.
In the end, instead of lovely, tasty pomegranate juice, the mixture looked muddy and smelled horrible.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Drink three sips, and don’t spill a drop, Ali.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ali did so. It tasted horrible. His body wanted to spit it out, but using all his effort, he swallowed the three sips. He saw the Genie do the same.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Now, we wait. We cannot have anything else, especially water for the next three hours. Now, we wait.Ã¢â‚¬Â With those words, the Genie put her head down and slept.
At first, Ali felt the slightest itch in his throat. He tried to ignore it. But soon, it felt like his tongue was on fire. Soon, his whole throat was burning. Twice, he stopped himself from going to the fountain, but just barely. He did not think he would stop himself the third time.
The pain grew worse. His whole body was on fire.
Then, all at once, the pain was gone. He wiped the tears from his face and looked over to the Genie, and saw the most beautiful young girl sleeping there. He tried to wake her but could not. He did not know if enough time had passed. He turned to his camel.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Well? Has it been three hours?Ã¢â‚¬Â The camel did not answer. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I think she needs water more than me. I will try it.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ali cupped water into his hands, and gently trickled it into her mouth. Her eyes opened immediately. She grabbed his hands and drank greedily.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Thank you, young Ali. We must leave this cave now, while the curse is pushed aside. Hurry, Ali, hurry.Ã¢â‚¬Â As they ran, he saw that his hair was black, and his nails were short. He felt young and strong again. They ran out of the cave, with the camel following close at their heels.
And just then . . . .
(Robert Kezelis is a lawyer, sculptor and writing curmudgeon based south of Chicago.)