MANY YEARS ago there was a rich merchant who dealt in rare goods. Every year he travelled to foreign lands to sell jewels and cloths from his home country. He would return with costly and wonderful things that he had obtained in trade. Sometimes he brought back porcelain, or strange foods or drugs or rare gems or gold. Always he sold his goods at a profit, and his house prospered. He had only one child, a daughter whom he loved, and he was always at pains to find something special or unusual for her delight.
On one trip he brought her a gold brooch inlaid with turquoise and coral, on another he found a small fluffy monkey to sit on her shoulder and make her laugh. Every year he brought home a new unique treasure. Fine brocades, strangely wrought buttons, a golden ball that hid a succession of twenty smaller balls within its layered shell.
On a certain journey, when his daughter was ten years old, he was in a distant land where the trees were dark and of a kind unknown to him, and where the people wore furs to keep the cold at bay. One evening just after sunset the merchant wandered from the inn where he had been staying. He had eaten and drunk but it was too early to sleep. For a while he watched the full moon over the bay. Then he heard the song of a nightingale. Its song caused a great joy and a great sadness to well up inside him at the same time, so that even while he laughed tears tumbled down his cheeks and dampened his great moustache. Memories of his youth flooded him, some perhaps of things that had never happened. Seeing in his mind’s eye his wife as he had first seen her, he knew that this trip he would bring back a nightingale for his daughter. After a while the nightingale stopped, or flew away, and he went inside and slept.
The next day he went to the market and found a dealer in birds and rodents. He said: ‘I am looking for a songbird. It sings like this,’ and he whistled a few bars of the song that was fixed in his mind.
‘I have plenty of songbirds. This beauty here sings like a siren,’ and he held up a cage with a blue and green parrot.
‘Let me hear it,’ the merchant said, and whistled at the bird.
‘Unfortunately my beauty sings only in the spring and summer. In the fall she is uninspired….’
‘Last night I heard the bird sing.’ He whistled again. ‘I must have it.’
‘This daw over here is a very valuable specimen. It can be taught practically anything. It can already speak three languages and sings like a minstrel. I can part with her for a mere five hundred.’
‘It wasn’t a daw. Tell your catchers that I want the song bird. I will wait for it. The first to bring the bird will get ten gold pieces.’
‘I will require a deposit, of course. It takes time to catch birds. We don’t just pluck them off bushes like berries.’
The merchant paid a large sum and waited for a bird to be brought to him. The catchers brought finches and doves, sparrows and robins, larks and starlings. The merchant listened to each and rejected all.
The second week they brought him a pigeon, an owl and a merlin. Again he rejected them. The seller of birds needed more money. The merchant paid. At night he went out again and again the nightingale sang. Every time he heard it his quest became more urgent, his desire more unquenchable. But he didn’t tell the bird catchers that the bird sang for him right in the city. He wanted a nightingale but not this nightingale. The weeks came and went. He heard and rejected every kind of bird that the marketplace could offer.
The dealer in birds kept encouraging him. ‘One of my catchers heard him singing on the slopes of Ox Mountain. They are within an inch of finding the nest. This bird of yours is clever. We need a bit more….’
Then a time came when the merchant faced the choice of leaving without a bird or being pinned in the harbour for a season by winter storms. He went to the bird merchant.
‘Bring your most ingenious hunters with their nets to the inn at sunset. I think that I know where we can find our quarry.’
Again the bird sang as the moon rose. The hunters cast their nets and the nightingale was snared. The bird did not sing on board the ship. The merchant stood at the rail and watched gulls wheel and call. Four days from the port a storm blew up, the like of which the merchant had never seen. The ship rolled and slewed, pitched and tossed. The masts splintered, the rigging tore. The ship’s back broke, flinging all into the water. The merchant caught a big beam, and clung to it in the roiling waves.
When day broke the sea had calmed. He floated for three days, until he and the beam washed up on the shore of an island. The next day he found the nightingale in its wooden cage on the beach. Silent and bedraggled, it sat on its perch. For months they lived on the island. He foraged. The nightingale remained in its cage, fed on grubs, seeds and berries. It ate but did not sing.
One day the merchant discovered a stone slab with a big black iron ring in its middle, set into the ground among the dense bush in the centre of the island. The slab was sealed with a great lead seal cut in intricate patterns. He prised the seal off with shells from the beach. Then he pulled at the iron ring. The stone moved slightly but, try as he might, he couldn’t lift it.
He moved his camp and the silent nightingale to where the slab lay. He devoted all of his time not spent gathering food or sleeping to the problem of lifting the stone. He tried wooden levers but the wood of the trees on the island was too soft to get a purchase on the stone. He dug around the slab but soon came upon smooth hard black stone. He spent months plaiting and weaving ropes. He tied the ropes around a great log and tried to roll the log, but was not strong enough to move it. Beyond the black stone he dug a pit. He rolled the log to the edge of the pit and tied it to the ring. When he pushed the log down the slope, it was not heavy enough to move the slab. He hollowed the soft wood out and packed it with stones. Again he pushed it down the slope. The slab moved perhaps an inch before the rope broke. He was elated. He made stronger ropes. The slab slid aside with a grating noise.
Stone steps spiralled down into darkness. After a while it was too dark to see anything. He needed light.
It took him over a week to make a supply of torches. He coated rushes with beeswax robbed from a hive. He made a fire by rubbing sticks. The torches burned brightly but with a smoky flame. He put the nightingale into its cage and went down the stairs.
After a hundred stairs he grew worried. After two hundred he was scared. After three hundred he was terrified. After four hundred he forgot everything and stumbled down without thought. His last torch went out after eight hundred steps and he kept descending in the dark. The nightingale shifted in the cage. After a thousand steps he thought he saw light ahead. The stairs ended in an archway. Beyond was a gleaming chamber. Everywhere incredible wealth lay strewn. The many-pillared cavern was lit by self-luminous jewels of all colours. Gold, silver, pink and blue metals gleamed in heaps. The ceiling was high and many-vaulted. It seemed to go on indefinitely in all directions. Everywhere the treasure lay heaped. Careful to keep the stone stairway in sight, the merchant wandered around. He poked at a pile of things with his toe and the pile crashed down, a goblet rolling round and round near his feet. He searched through a pile of weapons until he found a jewelled sword which he thrust into his grass belt. Thinking of the climb up, he selected only a roll of rich brocade, a bowl and two knives. He filled the bowl with gold coins. He added an iron rod which he thought might be useful for levering the stone slab. He tried to reach one of the self-luminous jewels, but they were set too high on the pillars.
He took his pile and began the climb up into the dark. He stubbed his toes and scraped his shins. His arms became tense from carrying the load. A coin fell and rolled back down. He could hear it bouncing on the steps below for a long time. Eventually he made it to the light. He threw his treasure down, took the iron rod and levered the stone back into place then fell to the earth and slept.
When he woke, he realised that he had left the nightingale in the chamber below. He took the iron rod, but try as he may he couldn’t move the stone. He set the log up again, unpacking the stones and retying the rope. With the first heave the rope gave way. Thinking to prize off the stone, he took the sword from his bundle of loot and drew the blade from its scabbard. It flashed in the sun, and the flash grew brighter and brighter until it coalesced into the form of a young woman wearing only a long skirt. In her hand the sword was an arc of sunlight. Light poured from her, and the merchant fell to the ground at her feet.
‘I will grant you one wish before I kill you.’ The djinniyeh’s voice roared through his whole body.
The merchant grovelled. ‘Goddess, spare me!’
‘Stand up, fool. I am a djinniyeh and not a goddess. Can mortals no longer tell the difference? In fact, I am the djinniyeh of the blade that lies on the stone at your feet.’
The merchant stood up nervously. ‘What have I done that you would kill me?’ he pleaded.
‘I was a soldier in a great war between powers in the worlds beyond. I was captured in a skirmish and imprisoned within my own weapon by their leader. For a thousand years I lay imprisoned in that blade. I vowed by the fingernail of God that whosoever set me free by drawing the blade in the sun, I would love for the rest of his days, and that I would heap all delight on him and make his life a foretaste of the paradise which otherwise comes only to the devout. Nobody came. For the next thousand years I sent my mind deep into the matter of the blade, searching among its archways and lattices for a doorway from my prison. Deep in the heart of the sword the fire of God stared back at me, but nowhere was the doorway I sought. I vowed that whoever set me free would be given all knowledge, so that being wise he would live well and have his just reward before and after death. I was not rescued. For the next thousand years I turned my gaze into myself. I vowed that my liberator would be given powers over the inner and outer worlds so that he could shape his reward to his desires. Nobody drew the blade. A terrible rage overcame me. I vowed that I would grant one wish to my rescuer to cancel any debt, and that I would kill him immediately after that. For six hundred years I lay in my anger inside the blade. Now you have drawn me. Please make your wish and commend your soul to the beyond.’
The merchant spoke without thinking. ‘I want to hear my nightingale sing for my daughter.’
‘That is an inconvenient and stupid wish. Why didn’t you ask for a long life or to be plucked from your predicament? Nevertheless, I shall grant it. There’s a problem, though. I can’t go back down there. It’s impossible. You’ll have to go and fetch the bird yourself, and then I’ll see what I can do about getting it to the daughter.’
The djinniyeh nudged the slab and it moved to the side. She pointed ‘Go down. Ignore everything except the bird. Bring it back here.’
The merchant set off into the dark again. A long time after he’d lost count and concluded that the stairwell was infinite, the glow appeared. When he rounded the final twist, he saw not the treasure trove but a heaving ocean. The ceiling was a cloudy sky. The little wicker cage rose and fell not far from the base of the stairs where he stood. He knelt to take it but it stayed just out of reach. After trying for a while, he stripped and dived into the water. He swam towards the cage but it drifted away. The bird sat at its perch, just above the water. After a long struggle, he drew level with it. He found that he couldn’t hold the cage without dragging it under. For a while he trod water, working out a way to herd the cage back to the base of the stairs, but a strong current carried him and the bird away. Soon he could see nothing but waves. The sun was directly overhead. He didn’t even know which way to swim, as every direction appeared the same.
He allowed himself to drift in the waves. Some time later he heard voices. He turned in the water. A boat was drawing near. Sailors shouted at him and hauled him naked into their boat, clutching the cage with the nightingale. They rowed back to where a ship lay at anchor and brought him aboard. The ship was from his home port, the captain an acquaintance. They were only four days from home.
The merchant spent a day brooding at the rail. Behind him the silent nightingale sat in his cage on top of a canvas bale. The next day he took the bird aft to the ship’s smithy. There he heated a poker to glowing red and shoved it down the bird’s throat, cauterising its vocal cords.
The rest is details: The merchant lived to a ripe old age but never regained his former wealth or influence. His daughter grew up and married a grocer who lived a block away. The grocer beat her and her life was unhappy. She never heard the nightingale sing. The nightingale lived in the cage for twelve years, and then suddenly died. Some say it was on Christmas day. And the djinniyeh? I suppose she’s still waiting over the trapdoor, her sword in her hand, but that’s another story.