A story from IRAQ

(From F&F#45 May 2003)

Not here, not there, there lived a fisherman. His wife had drowned in the Great River and left him alone with his daughter, a pretty little girl of two years old. Nearby there lived a widow and her daughter. This woman began to come to the fisherman's house to care for the little girl and every time she did so she said to the child, "Am I not like a mother to you?" The fisherman said he would never re-marry for stepmothers always hate their husband's children; but when his daughter grew older she began to say, "Why don't you marry our neighbour, Father? There is no evil in her and she loves me as much as her own daughter."

They say that water will wear away stone, and in the end, the fisherman married the widow. The wedding week was hardly over when she began to feel jealous of her husband's daughter. She saw how much her father loved the child, and she saw that she was fair, and quick, while her own daughter was thin and pale and so clumsy she could not sew the seam of her gown.

As soon as she was mistress of the house the stepmother began to leave all the work for the fisherman's daughter to do. She would not give her stepchild soap to wash her hair and feet, and she fed her nothing but crusts and crumbs. The girl bore this patiently, saying not a word, but she thought "I picked up the scorpion with my own hand so I'll save myself with my own mind."

Besides all her other tasks, the fisherman's daughter had to go down to the river each day to bring home her father's catch. One day a little red fish spoke to her

Child with such patience to endure,
I beg you now, my life secure.
Throw me back into the water,
And now and always be my daughter.

The girl listened, half in wonder and half in fear. Then she threw the fish into the river. The fish called out

Your kindness is not in vain
A new mother do you gain.
Come to me when you are sad,
And I shall help to make you glad.

The girl went back to the house and gave the three remaining fishes to her stepmother. When the fisherman returned and asked about the fourth she told him, "Father, the little red fish dropped from my basket and I couldn't find it again." "Never mind," he said, "it was a very small fish." But her stepmother began to scold, "You didn't tell me there were four fishes. Go and look for it, before I curse you!"

It was past sunset and the girl had to walk back to the river in the dark. With tears in her eyes she stood on the water's edge and called out,

Red fish, my mother and nurse,
Come quickly, and save me from a curse.

The little red fish appeared and gave her a gold piece. The girl gave it to her stepmother who soon forgot all about the missing fish.

The years came and the years went, and life in the fisherman's house continued as before. Nothing changed except that the two little girls became young women.
One day a great man, the Master of the Merchants' Guild, announced that his daughter was to be married. It was the custom for the women to gather at the bride's house on the 'Day of the Bride's Henna' to celebrate and sing as the girls' feet, palms, and arms were decorated with red henna stain for the wedding. Every mother brought their unmarried daughters to be seen by the mothers of sons and thus many a girl's future was decided on such a day. The fisherman's wife rubbed and scrubbed her daughter and dressed her in her finest gown and hurried her off to the merchant's house with the rest. The fisherman's daughter was left at home to fill the water jar and sweep the yard.

As soon as the two women were out of sight the fisherman's daughter gathered up her gown and ran down to the river to tell the little red fish of her sorrow. "You shall go to the bride's Henna and sit on the cushions in the centre of the hall" said the little red fish. She gave the girl a small bundle. "Here is everything you need to wear and a comb of pearl for your hair and clogs of gold for your feet" it said. "But one thing you must remember, be sure to leave before your stepmother rises to go."

Quickly the fisherman's daughter washed and dressed herself and tucked the comb of pearl into her hair and slipped the golden clogs on to her feet and went off to the feast. Women from every house in the town were there. They admired her face and her grace, and they thought, "Surely this must be the Governor's daughter!" They brought her sherbet and cakes made with almonds and honey and they sat her in the place of honour in the middle of the hall.

She looked for her stepmother with her daughter and saw them far off, near the door where the peasants were sitting with the wives of weavers and pedlars.

Her stepmother stared at her but did not recognise her own husband's daughter! Before the rest of the women stood to leave the fisherman's daughter went to the mother of the bride and said "May it be with God's blessings and bounty, O my aunt" and hurried out. The sun had set and darkness was falling. On her way home the girl had to cross a bridge over the stream that flowed into the king's garden and, by fate, as she ran over the bridge, one of her golden clogs fell off into the river below. It was too far to climb down to the water and search in the dusk so the girl took off her other shoe and, pulling her cloak around her, dashed on her way.

When she reached the house she took off her fine clothes, rolled the pearly comb and golden clog inside them, and hid them under the woodpile. She rubbed her head and hands and feet with earth to make them dirty and was standing leaning on her broom when her stepmother arrived home.

Meanwhile, the current carried the golden clog into the king's garden and rolled it into the pool where the king's son led his stallion to drink. Next day as the prince was watering the horse something made it shy and step back. He called to the groom, and from the mud the man brought him the shining clog of gold.

When the prince held the beautiful thing in his hand, he began to imagine the beautiful little foot that had worn it. He walked back to the palace with his heart busy and his mind full of the girl who owned so precious a shoe. The queen saw him lost in thought and said, "May Allah send us good news; why so care-worn, my son?" "Mother, I want you to find me a wife!" said the prince. "So much thought over one wife?" said the queen. "I'll find you a thousand wives!" "I want to marry only the girl who owns this clog," replied the prince.

The very next day the queen went to work. She went to the houses of nobles and merchants and goldsmiths. She saw the daughters of craftsmen and traders. She went into the huts of the water carriers and street sweepers. But she could not find the girl whose foot fitted into the golden clog.

When the fisherfolk were told that the queen was coming to visit their houses, the fisherman's wife bathed her daughter and dressed her in her best, she rinsed her hair with henna and rimmed her eyes with kohl and rubbed her cheeks till they glowed red. But still when the girl stood beside the fisherman's daughter it was like a candle in the sun.

The stepmother pushed her stepdaughter into the bakehouse and covered its mouth with the round clay tray on which she spread her dough. "Don't you dare move until I come for you!" she said.

Just then the queen arrived with the golden clog but a cock flew into the yard crowing

Let the king's wife know
They put the ugly one on show
And hide the beauty down below!

The stepmother raced out and flapped her arms to chase the cock away but the queen had heard the words and she sent her servants to search the yard. When they pushed aside the cover from the mouth of the oven they found a girl as fair as the moon in the midst of the ashes. They brought her to the queen and the golden clog fitted her foot as if it had been the mould from which her foot was cast.

The queen was satisfied. She said, "From this hour that daughter of yours is betrothed to my son. Make ready for the wedding. God willing, the procession shall come for her on Friday." And she gave the stepmother a purse filled with gold.

When the woman realised that her plans had failed, that her husband's daughter was to marry the prince while her own was to remain in the house, she was filled with anger and rage. "I'll see that he sends her back before the wedding night is out" she said. She took the purse of gold, ran to the bazaar, and asked for a purge so strong that it would shred the bowels to tatters. At the sight of the gold the perfumer began to mix the powders in his tray. Then she asked for arsenic and lime, which weaken hair and make it fall out, and an ointment that smelled like carrion.

Now the stepmother began to prepare the bride for her wedding. She washed her hair with henna mixed with the arsenic and lime, and spread the foul ointment over it. Then she held the girl by the ear and poured the purge down her throat. Soon the wedding procession arrived, with horses and drums, fluttering bright clothes, and the sounds of celebration. They lifted the bride onto the litter and took her away. She came to the palace and entered the chamber. The prince lifted the veil and she shone like a full moon. A scent of amber and roses made the prince press his face to her hair. He ran his fingers over her locks and it was like a man playing with cloth-of-gold. Now the bride began to feel a heaviness in her belly and from under the hem of her gown there fell gold pieces till the carpet and the cushions were covered with them.

Meanwhile the stepmother waited in her doorway expecting the bride to be brought back in disgrace. But nothing happened and news of the prince's beautiful wife began to fill the town. A merchant's son heard the story and said to his mother, "They say that the prince's bride has a sister, I want her for my bride." Going to the fisherman's hut his mother gave the fisherman's wife a purse of gold and told her to prepare the bride. The fisherman's wife said to herself, "If what I did for my husband's daughter turned her hair to threads of gold and her belly to a fountain of coins I shall do the same for my own child." She hastened to the perfumer and asked for the same powders and drugs, but stronger than before. Then she prepared her child. The wedding procession came and carried the bride off to the merchant's house but when the merchant's son lifted her veil it was like lifting the cover off a grave, the stink was so strong that it choked him and her hair came away in his hands. They wrapped the poor bride in her filthy clothes and carried her back to her mother.

As for the prince, he lived with the fisherman's daughter in great happiness and joy, and God blessed them with seven children like seven golden birds.

Mulberry, mulberry
So ends my story.
If my house were not so far
I'd bring you figs and raisins in a jar.

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