The Sultan & Winter: Continuing the Third of Several Parts
Haajj didn’t know the boy had been autumn. He also didn’t know the girl had been spring. Yet when winter came to visit the Sultan felt very ill at ease. Winter was disquieting. His skin was white as paper. He was thin. His fingers curled out from his hands like gnarled little branches. He walked slowly. And, as though to protect him, he always kept a gray cloak wrapped tightly around him. He never smiled. Yet of his features, the strangest were his eyes. If you were to look at him, you might imagine a terribly cruel man. Yet his eyes were kind, and fragile, and beautiful! And once you saw them you could never forget them. If his body seemed ruined, his eyes burned with perfection.
It was long into night when winter came to Haajj. He had only just celebrated one of his many feasts. His guests were gone and he, finding himself alone, sat musing at the end of the banquet hall’s giant table. It seemed, indeed, that he possessed anything a Sultan could want. He twirled his knife idly in his hand. Haajj was about to leave when one of the great oaken doors quietly opened and the tall pale figure of winter crept into the room. Haajj quietly watched as the ghostly figure sat at the opposite end of the table. It was almost difficult to see him. Gold and silver candelabras spilled candle light in every direction. And all the plates, bowls, glasses and bottles collected it. Haajj peered through all the glitter.
“I have come,” said winter, “to see your most prized possession.”
“Does everyone have a key to my palace?” asked Haajj. “The evening is ended. There is no more food. We have drunk the wine. The embers are gray in their beds. Come back tomorrow. Then I will grant you audience.”
“I will not go,” said winter, “until I have seen your most prized possession.”
“You will do as I say,” said Haajj, “if you ever wish to see the garden.”
“I do not wish to see the garden,” said winter quietly. “I have come to see summer.”
“Summer?” Haajj felt suddenly ill at ease. “Who are you?”
“I am nothing,” said winter. “I am nobody.”
“Surely you would rather see my garden,” said Haajj. “It is magnificent. All the world’s flowers are there. I’ll show you my favorite! – the tiger lily. Or what about the fringed gentian? What about the blue columbine? Or have you seen the small-bracted dayflower? See the garden! I’ll show you a place to sleep under the sparkle berry tree. And you can rub the catkins of the pussy willow against your skin. You will never find a more beautiful place!”
“I want to know,” said winter quietly, “what does summer look like?”
Haajj was quiet. He fidgeted. He didn’t know what summer looked like. It was the one thing he didn’t possess. What could he say? The strange visitor awaited his answer. Haajj had none. He needed more time. He needed to think. He slumped in his chair, then he straightened. He rested both his elbows on the table, then he straightened again and rubbed his forehead.
“Come back tomorrow,” Haajj finally said, “if you want to see summer.”
“Very well,” winter said, almost whispering. The narrow figure stood and walked slowly back to the oaken door. Without turning, he closed the door behind him. And Haajj, being sure he was alone, hurriedly left the banquet hall. Whoever he was, Haajj decided, he were someone to be reckoned with. He went straight to the tower. Perhaps he could find a way to trick summer. If he could entrap her, he could surely find a way to see her.
He climbed the long spiral stairs of the tower. He peered into her room. He could see nothing. Haajj began to pace. There was an artist, it was said, who could paint all things in their minutest details – nothing escaped his eye. Perhaps Haajj could not see summer, but surely a great painter could. He would have summer painted. Perhaps the strange visitor would be satisfied by a painting. Haajj at once ordered his guards to summon the painter. The painting, he knew, would have to be finished by tomorrow. So all was prepared. The painter, once he arrived, was told to discern summer wherever she was. And he was not to sleep until he had done so.
When Haajj awoke the next morning, he at once went to learn of the painter’s progress. Yet, far from having painted summer, the poor little painter was beside himself with excitement. He had done nothing. “I shall have you strung up!” said Haajj furiously. “Where is my painting of summer? Did you sleep all night? You are worthless!”
The painter at once fell to his hands and knees. “O exalted Sultan,” begged the little painter. “Forgive me! Spare me! I am a mere nothing! I am the spit of a camel! I am the belly of a lizard! Spare me, O exalted Sultan!”
“Get up.” Haajj stared at the empty canvass. “Why have you done nothing.”
“Last night,” said the painter, still on his knees, “as I was readying myself to paint summer, a strange visitor came. As I thought you had given explicit orders for no one to disturb me, I at once assumed you had sent him. How else should anyone come to the tower but by your permission? I am miserable.”
“Go on,” said Haajj.
“He asked if I possessed a key to the door.”
“You do not,” said Haajj.
“I did not,” said the painter breathlessly. “I told the visitor you kept the key hidden. And that it was forbidden for anyone to inquire as to its hiding place. Then, I witnessed it with my own eyes, he put his lips to the glass and summer came to him! I am miserable!”
“Then what happened?” asked Haajj, very worried.
“O exalted Sultan!” cried the little painter, “I could do nothing to stop him! I am miserable!”
“Yes, yes… miserable.” Haajj gestured impatiently. “Get on with it! What happened?”
“Summer appeared,” said the painter, “and they kissed with the glass between them. It was a beautiful kiss! I have never seen anything like it! When there lips parted, as if from both their mouths, a rose appeared! – a blue rose! It was like a wisp of smoke at first, then summer touched it and it softened into a blue rose. It is still in the room!”
Haajj looked. In the center of the room lay the blue rose. It lay as if it had just been picked. It was the most beautiful flower he had ever seen. Haajj rubbed his chin.
“What did he look like?” Haajj asked.
“He was a tall man,” said the painter. “I could not see him well. He wore a gray cloak. I could only see his face. I was afraid of him. I am a painter. I am miserable. I am sure he could have crushed me like the snail beneath the Sultan’s exalted foot.”
“It is winter!” said Haajj, who was too clever not to know. “So this is what happens when winter kisses summer! We have flowers! When summer kisses winter?” Haajj mused, “- perhaps snowflakes!”
“What is your will?” asked the painter, back to his hands and knees. “I am your pathetic servant.”
“You will not leave here until you have painted summer,” said Haajj. “You are miserable. You are pathetic. You are, of course, a genius. It is said you are the greatest painter in any land. The eyes of genius miss nothing. Therefore summer cannot hide from you. Do not allow yourself to be distracted again.”
Haajj walked slowly down the winding stairs of the great tower deep in thought. He would need to be very careful. He would, of course, have to be cleverer than winter. And what of the blue rose? Yet something more to torment him. He wanted it. Yet if he opened any window summer would be quick as lightning. As he neared the throne room the Sultan put on his fabulous crown. And as he walked into the throne room winter was waiting.
“I grant you audience,” said Haajj. “What do you desire?”
“Will you show me summer?” winter asked.
“I will.” Haajj seated himself upon his throne. “Yet first you must tell me where you are from. And you must also tell me who your parents are.”
Winter had never been asked these questions before. The Sultan was a clever man. One does not ask the river where it was born nor who its parents are. Winter mused. The answer could not be careless. It would not do to be outwitted by a Sultan.
“Will you show me summer when I have answered,” winter asked.
“I will,” said the emperor, “when you tell me where you are from and who your parents are. If you cannot answer I you will not see summer.”
“I shall return in morning,” said winter, “with my answer.”