The Sultan & Winter: Continuing the First of Several Parts
Haajj decided to spend the day alone in his garden. He walked through the acacia groves, he smelled the orchids, smiled at the hyacinths, dallied with the butterflies when they let him. He tried to imagine what summer might look like. The idea tormented him. He finally lay down to stare at the sky. It wasn’t so bad, all in all. Perhaps he could suffer never seeing summer. He possessed a beautiful garden. He had outfoxed winter. He was the envy of the world. He didn’t need to see summer.
“You are the Sultan?”
“What?” Haajj quickly sat upright. A boy in tattered clothes stood over him. His hair was ragged. He was healthy yet strangely gaunt. “Who are you?”
“I know a story,” said the boy. “Would you like to hear it?”
“How did you get in my garden?” asked Haajj.
“It’s a good story,” said the boy. “I think you’ll like it.”
“Who let you in?” Haajj persisted. “Tell me which guard it was.”
“I shan’t keep you long,” said the boy.
“It wasn’t a guard.” Haajj mused. “Was it one of the maids?”
“Here’s my story…”
“Did you find another way in?” Haajj interrupted. “Tell me. How did you get in?”
“Try this.” The boy held out an apple. “Then I will tell you.”
“It is poisoned,” said Haajj. “I won’t try it.”
“It is not!” the boy answered. “I got in with these!”
“Well…maybe.” The Sultan eyed the apple. “Give it to me.”
The apple was the sweetest the Sultan had ever eaten. He might have wanted to say something more but the sweetness of the apple all but silenced him. The boy began again. The Sultan quietly ate his apple.
“There was once a fox,” said the boy, “who, by his cleverness, had come to possess all the riches a fox may desire. He lived in a foxhole lined with the trophies of his exploits. Furs from all the animals he had eaten at one time or another covered the floors and hung from the ceilings. Yet, of all these things and more, is most cherished possession was his feather mattress. Every evening he lovingly circled it three times before he lay down. There wasn’t another fox who slept as well he did. Yet, day by day, he noticed this or that feather missing. He was always careful to notice these things. One evening, determined to find out why, he caught a mouse stealing one of the feathers. The fox was furious.
‘I should swallow you whole!’ he snarled.
‘For a feather?’ asked the mouse. ‘I only came for a feather.’
‘You cannot have mine!’ snapped the fox. ‘If I catch you again then I will swallow you whole!”
‘But I need only one to sleep on,’ said the mouse. ‘The cat is always ready to eat me. If I go to the bird for a feather, it will carry me far away and not bring me back. The beaver has made a lake where I might have looked in a better place. I shall drown if I go there now. The bull will trample me if I wander through its field. The woodsman’s wife always hopes to trap me if I am not careful. Where else shall I go? You have many feathers. It shall not harm you if I take what few I need for myself and my children.’
‘What is a mouse to me?” asked the fox. ‘You are nothing!’ If I were to eat you, I would swallow you whole! Why should I care for you? You are nothing! – nothing but a tiny mouse! Run! Run away! If you ever return I shall eat you! – and I shall eat your children too!’
And so the selfish fox sent the mouse away with nothing. For a short time the fox was happy. No more feathers were stolen from his mattress. Yet it wasn’t long, perhaps two or three days, before a knock came at the door. The fox had just lain down! He was ready to go to sleep! Yet when the knocking continued he angrily rose from his mattress. It was a cat! A cat had come to his door!
‘Please pardon me,’ said the cat, ‘but have you seen any mice?’
‘I have chased them away!’ snapped the fox. ‘Have you nothing better to ask me?’
‘I had hoped,’ said the cat, ‘that you could entice them back.’
‘I’ll do no such thing!’ snarled the selfish fox. ‘If you mean to catch a mouse you’ll have to find it elsewhere!
What are your problems to me? You are just another cat in a world with cats too many! Now go away! – or else I’ll bite your tail off!’
The fox slammed the door and returned to his feather mattress. The cat did not return, which was just as well.
The fox would have surely bitten its tail off. Yet it wasn’t more than another two days before someone knocked at his door. The fox angrily climbed out of his feather mattress. ‘Who is it?’ he demanded, fully expecting to see the cat.
‘Please pardon us,’ said two birds, ‘but we’ve come to ask a kindness.’
‘I was nearly asleep!’ snapped the fox. ‘Come another time!’
‘We had hoped,’ said the birds, ‘that you could entice the mice to return.’
‘I won’t do it!’ snapped the selfish fox. ‘What are mice to birds?’
‘The cat will not let us be,’ answered the birds, ‘because you have chased the mice away.’
‘And I,’ said the fox, ‘will swallow both of you whole. Now go away! What are your problems to me? You are just two birds in world already too full with birds! Now go away! I’ll brook no more of you!’
The fox slammed the door. The birds did not return, which was also just as well. The fox surely would have eaten them whole. Yet, once again, it wasn’t two days before another knock came at the door. The fox angrily uncurled from his mattress. It was always when he was about to go to sleep! He opened the door and there was a beaver!
‘Pardon me,’ said the beaver, ‘but I have a favor to ask of you.’
‘I’m tired,’ complained the fox, ‘come back some other time.’
‘It’s something small,’ said the beaver. ‘Let the mice back in your house.’
‘It will never be!’ snarled the fox. ‘Why should I let any more mice steal my feathers?’
‘The birds are in the tallest trees,’ said the beaver, ‘because the cat will eat them however it can. Yet the tallest trees are the best for my dams. I don’t want to harm the birds. They sing to me as I work! Let the mice come back, and the cat will go away, and the birds will find other trees, and the best and tallest will be free to cut.’
‘I’ll do no such thing!’ snarled the fox impatiently. ‘Now go away and never come back! – or, one by one, I shall carry away the sticks of your dam until you and the dam are washed away!’
The fox slammed the door. This time, he was sure, no one would knock at the door. He prided himself on his fortitude. No one was going to talk him into doing what he didn’t want to do. Yet, sure enough, another two days passed and a knock came at the door. The fox furiously jumped out of his mattress. This time he was going eat, with one bite if he could, whatever or whoever it was at the door. He slammed it open, and there was a bull!
‘Pardon me,’ said the bull, ‘but I have just a small thing to ask you.’
‘I’m tired!’ said the fox. ‘I haven’t slept well! Go away!’
‘But it’s such a small thing,’ said the bull. ‘Couldn’t you let just one mouse back into your house?’
‘A mouse?’ snapped the fox. ‘What is one tiny mouse to a bull?’
‘My fields are flooded,’ said the bull, ‘because the beaver has let his dam break. The beaver has let his dam break because the birds are hiding in the tallest trees. The birds are hiding in the tallest trees because the cat cannot find any mice to eat. And the cat cannot find any mice to eat because you have chased them all away.’
‘Then find some other fields,’ the fox barked. ‘If you bother me again I shall dig holes for you to stumble in. I shall dig so many you will break every leg and the farmer will shoot you and have you for his evening meal!’
The fox slammed the door. And he would not, he decided, answer the door again. He was rid of the mice once and for all. Nothing whatsoever was going to change his mind. He happily curled atop his mattress and slept well for the next several days. Yet, just when the fox was sure, another knock came at the door. His fur bristled. He furiously leapt up. He slammed open the door. He was ready to pounce on whoever it was – but it was the woodsman. And his great bow and arrow were pointed straight at the fox’s snout.
‘Pardon me,’ said the fox, ‘what might I do for you.’
‘I’m tired!’ said the woodsman. ‘I haven’t slept well!’
‘Why?’ asked the fox. ‘What could I possibly do to help you?’
‘My fields are flooded,’ said the woodsman, ‘and my bull is too weak to pull the plow. He has not eaten. He has not eaten because the beaver will not cut the tallest trees to build his dam. The beaver will not build his dam because the birds are hiding in the tallest trees. The birds are hiding in the tallest trees because the cat cannot find any mice. The cat cannot find any mice because you have chased all the mice away!’
‘Why shoot me?’ The fox saw what was coming. ‘It could be any fox.’
‘The bull told me to ask the beaver,’ said the woodsman. ‘The beaver told me the birds would know. The birds told me I should ask the cat. The cat told me to find a mouse. I found a mouse and she told me you were the fox and this the foxhole!’
‘I could be of use to you,’ pleaded the fox. ‘I really don’t think you should shoot me.’
‘What is a fox to me?’ bellowed the woodsman. ‘You are nothing! If I had known you were here, I would have been rid of you long ago. Why should I care? You are nothing! – nothing but a mangy fox! I’ll brook no more of you! You are nothing but a fox in world with foxes too many!’
And with that the woodsman shot the fox straight between the eyes. So, you see,” said the boy to Haajj, “a mouse, even the smallest thing, can mean a world of difference. There is nothing which is unimportant. What you sow, you will reap. You should think on this very carefully.”
“I like it not.” Haajj finished the apple. “Animals do not speak. And I do not like these stories that tell me how I must be good and how not to be bad. I care not for these stories. Yet it is, in its way, a nice little story. You may go now. You have entertained me.”
“Alas,” said the boy, “you have understood nothing.”
Continued: The Third of Several Parts