The Sultan & Winter: Continuing the Fourth of Several Parts
Morning came. Haajj hurried to the top of the tower. The painter was fast asleep. Yet upon his canvass was the most beautiful woman imaginable. Haajj stared at it wordlessly. It bothered him. He wanted to see summer himself. Haajj nudged the painter with his foot. The little man suddenly stirred to life.
“Forgive me!” He shuffled to his hands and knees. “My miserable talent offends you!”
“Tell me,” said Haajj, wishing to test the painter, “how do I know this is summer?”
“I have painted,” answered the little man, “she whom you have trapped in the room.”
“How is it,” asked Haajj, “that you can see her and I cannot?”
“You cannot see her, exalted Sultan, because you look for her.”
“Is this a riddle?” asked Haajj. “I shall have you skewered!”
“I am the leg of a flea,” cried the poor painter.
“You will paint another picture,” said Haajj. “Paint the blue rose. Once you’ve painted it, cut it out. And once you’ve cut it out, work with it. Make it look real! ”
Haajj left with the painting. And he carried it with him through the palace, all the way to the throne room. Winter was waiting. Haajj seated himself. He was careful to turn the painting away from sight. He wanted to hear winter’s answers.
“Will you show me summer?” winter asked?
“What are your answers to my questions?” Haajj asked in return.
“My mother,” said winter, “is the shadow of the flying crow.”
“Your father?” asked Haajj.
“My father,” answered winter, “is the sound of the still wind.”
These were clever answers. If the questions had been impossible to answer, winter had given answers impossible to question. Haajj was intrigued. He waited for winter to answer the third question.
“Will you show me summer?” asked winter.
“Where are you from?” Haajj asked.
‟I come from the leaf,” said winter, “floating in the blackened well.”
“What were you,” asked Haajj, “before there were wells?”
“I was the leaf,” winter replied, “and before the leaf I was the digger of the well.”
“So be it!” Haajj returned. “You have answered my three questions. It is without doubt that you are winter. You shall have what you desire.” Haajj turned the painting. “You bid me show you summer. Here is a painting for you to carry with you so you may gaze upon her to your heart’s content!”
“I will not cease,” said winter angrily, “until I have freed summer.”
“You have always done so,’ Haajj replied, ‘but I will not let you free her.”
Winter glowered. He was not content to be outwitted by a Sultan. He drew his long grew cloak tightly over his shoulders and left without a word. Haajj gleefully stepped from his throne. What would winter try next? Almost in answer a bitter cold wind whistled through the palace and into the throne room! The painting, which Haajj had offered winter, spun into the air, lifted in a great swirl, and was torn to shreds. Haajj leapt aside. Yet the wind as quickly circled him. The remnants of the painting lashed at him as they spun. Haajj covered his eyes.
At the instant he did so the wind vanished. Where had it gone? Haajj hurried out of the throne room. Winter was after his key! When Haajj reached his own vast room its double doors had been swung wide open. He could almost see the wind. Drawers were sucked open and all the things in them were lifted out, as though a tiny hurricane had filled the room. Haajj leapt into its midst. Its cold nipped and bit at him. He reached to close one of the drawers the winter’s wind had opened. A sword, one of the many hanging from the walls of Haajj’s room, sprang to life. As if held by an invisible warrior, it danced between Haajj and the drawers. When Haajj moved one way, the sword moved also.
“You will not find the key!” Haajj shouted.
He drew his own sword and leapt at the other. Paper, clothes, sheets, pillows, and all things alike began to swirl swiftly about the room. Metal rang out as sword met sword. Haajj slashed at the wind and the sword fell. Yet as it struck the floor, two, three, then four more swords sprang from the wall. Held by nothing, they spiraled round till they surrounded him. Haajj picked up the sword just fallen. With a sword in each hand he cut at the four that swirled around him. They jabbed at him, poked at him, and stabbed at him. All else in the room was caught up in wind as winter searched for the key. Yet try is it might winter could not find it. Haajj roared with delight as one by one he cut down the four swords surrounding and dancing around him.
At the next moment the wind rushed out the window. All the things caught circling the room crashed to the floor. Bits of paper trailed out the window and fluttered to the ground. It was as though the leaves of a tree had all been shaken off at once. Haajj stood in the middle, both swords in hand, gloating at his victory. What would winter try next? He hurried out of the room.
Afternoon became evening. Winter did not return, yet Haajj knew he would. He ordered all his servants – his cooks, his waiters, his waitresses – to prepare a grand feast. There would be seats for his generals, his admirals, the bravest of his soldiers, and one seat at the end of the table, left empty, for winter. The feast began. No one asked for whom the empty seat was. One does not question a Sultan. Yet as the feast turned to a loud revelry a cold wind suddenly caused all the candles round the room to flicker. Like smoke pouring into a bottle, the wind poured into the chair. Winter appeared. All the guests became silent. Haajj lifted his glass to figure at the far end of the table.
“A toast to winter!” Haajj pronounced.
Everyone silently raised their glasses. Some stared at the apparition. Some quietly slipped a hand to their knives or swords. Some shook so from fright they could hardly keep from spilling what they held. Winter looked at them all.
“Without winter,” said Haajj, “I would never have my summer!”
All drank the toast. Winter sat motionless. His hood half covered his face. His thin fingers encircled the arms of his chair. His gray cloak dipped into a small bundle at the floor. Only his eyes showed the depth of his anger. None dared to look into his eyes but Haajj.
“Have you given up?” Haajj asked.
“I have,” said winter. “I admit defeat.”
“You lie!” said Haajj. “But what does it matter? I know you do.”
“You have outwitted me,” winter returned.
“You are winter?” asked one of the generals.
“I am.” said winter.
“It was in winter you took my first born child,” said the general.
“Your child,” said winter, “begged a kiss from me.”
“She had been a beautiful woman!” said the general.
“”Her heart was small,” said winter, “and the fever which burned in her was great and caused her much pain. She desired the cold of my lips. She lives. She laughs. She visits you often. She is the breeze when you have played too much in the sun. She is the frost on the window and the light in your room. Would you have had her become a cripple? She loves you more.”
“You are a tyrant!” said a brave soldier. “You take our food from us!. You blast our regiments with a killing cold! You bury us in ice! You are a tyrant!”
“Do you think you alone suffer?” asked winter. “You cut the earth. Your hard boots trample her. Your hunger ravishes her. Your weapons puncture her. Your anger steeps her in the tears of mothers. Shall I not cover those wounds? Shall I not soothe the broken field with snow? Shall I not hide the tender grass and seedlings with snow? Shall I not cover her aching brooks with ice and snow? If you were kind, you would love the things that love you.”
“You are winter?” asked a young servant.
“I am,” said winter.
The servant knelt at winter’s side and kissed his hand.
“Why do you love winter?” Haajj asked the young boy.
“Every winter,” said the boy, “the river between my village and the village of my lover is turned to ice. The river has drowned many men in summer. It is white with anger then. Yet when winter comes he stills her anger. He teaches it to be silent. And I, when night comes, can walk across it into the arms of my lover.”
“I wish to know,” winter said to Haajj, “where you keep the key.”
Haajj laughed. “I wear it always.” He tugged at a chain around his neck so all could see where the key hung. “And so it shall remain until the day I perish.”
“Then summer is lost,” said winter.
“No,” said Haajj, “she is mine.”
“I ask one thing from you,” said winter. “Give me a painting of yourself.”
“I have many,” said Haajj. “Choose whichever you desire.”
“No,” said winter, “as you are now.”
“And you will never return?” asked Haajj.
“Never,” answered winter.
“So be it!” said Haajj. “Summon the painter!”
And so, while all watched, the painter painted Haajj. Winter knew well what he was doing. None rivaled the painter. There was nothing his eye missed. His genius captured all in its perfection. And this, in this little man, is exactly what winter wanted. So soon as the portrait was finished, winter took it, held it closely, studied it, gazed at it without pause. Haajj was pleased with himself, even flattered. Yet he could not help but feel it had been too easy.
“You are a master,” said winter to the painter, “I shall reward you little man.”
Haajj, again, was flattered. Yet he wondered what it was that winter gazed at so intently. The ghostly figure finally stood. He stood to his full height. Satisfaction burned in his eyes. He set the painting aside. Haajj suddenly realized his mistake! There, in the painting, was the key! The little man had painted it perfectly! Haajj stood in a rage. What could he say? Winter reached into a glass of water. When he pulled his hand out, he held the key, made of ice!
“Stop him!” Haajj shouted.
Yet in an instant winter melted into a mist. Haajj rushed out the banquet hall. He crashed though doors, through hallways, through the rooms of the palace until he reached the tower. He leapt up the steps two at a time. Haajj was many things, but he was not as quick as winter. Just as he reached the top, winter turned the key and opened the door which imprisoned summer. A terrible wind rushed out, nearly throwing Haajj back down the steps. Summer was free!
“You lied!” Haajj shouted at winter.
“I promised you I would never return,” said winter, “and I will not.”
Haajj turned. Summer appeared. She was radiant. Her beauty shone like a summer’s day. Yet there was no kindness in her eyes. Her hair floated in the air like tiny bolts of lightning.
“Why did you trap me?” she demanded of Haajj.
“I loved you,” said Haajj. “I desired you.”
“You shall have what you desire,” said summer. “Your garden shall be ever green. Keep all your possessions.
Your wealth shall be unsurpassed forevermore. Yet if you, or anyone should leave, you will never again find your way back to this city. Nor shall any, who seek to find your city, be able to find it. To the land that surrounds you, your summer shall be its curse. Never speak my name again.”
“Give me the blue rose!” said Haajj.
But neither summer nor winter answered him. Instead, summer gestured at the rose and the flower vanished in a white flame. Then winter, and summer following, swirled into winds which spiraled out the eyes of the tower. But Haajj had outwitted them. He had hidden the real flower. The flower consumed by the flame had been the painter’s.
The clever sultan was given much to think on. Was it better to have your heart’s desire, or was it worse having none to show it to. The land surrounding his city, under the angry summer’s sun, became the vast Sahara. The city, always at the horizon, fooled traveler after traveler. Though they tried, some desperately weary, none could ever reach it. And the city, as if made with air, became a curse to the desert. ‘Beware!’ said travelers, ‘of the Myrrha Haajj! ‘None have reached it! Beware of the Mirage!’ Haajj might have left and, if he did, he might even have found a way back. The blue rose, it is said, was once seen in Cairo!