Many years ago, on a lovely afternoon, the Caliph Casid of Bagdad sat at his ease on a luxurious sofa. It was a very hot day; he had had a sound nap and had awakened in the happiest of moods. He drew a few puffs through his long rosewood-stemmed pipe, sipped the coffee brought by an obsequious slave, and stroked his long beard with an air of extreme satisfaction. It was evident that the Caliph felt at peace with the world. Indeed, at such an hour he was easy to approach, and so every day he received a visit from his Grand Vizier, Mansor.
But on this particular afternoon the Grand Vizier seemed rather thoughtful and disinclined to talk; so the Caliph, taking his pipe from his mouth, said:
“What is the matter with you to-day, Mansor?”
The Grand Vizier crossed his arms on his breast, and bowing low answered:
“Mighty lord, there is really nothing the matter; but outside the Castle stands a merchant who has such beautiful wares that I feel quite unhappy that I have no money to spare and to spend.”
The Caliph, who had always rather favored the Grand Vizier, at once sent a black slave to conduct the merchant to his presence. Not many moments did he wait for here a little fat man, with sun-browned face and ragged garments appeared. This was the merchant, and he carried a pack containing all sorts of treasures pearls and rings, richly ornamented pistols, golden cups, and combs. The Caliph and the Vizier turned the articles over and over, and the Caliph bought some fine pistols for himself and Mansor, and for the Vizier’s wife a comb. While the merchant was packing up his wares in his box, the Caliph noticed therein a small drawer and asked what it held. The merchant opened the drawer and showed them a snuff-box containing some black powder, and a small piece of paper, on which was written something which neither the Caliph nor the Vizier could read.
“I got these from a merchant in Mecca,” said the pedlar, “and do not know what the writing means. If you like, you can have them for a trifling sum.”
The Caliph, who had in his library many rare manuscripts which he could not decipher, but in the possession of which he took pride, bought both snuff-box and paper and dismissed the pedlar. He was, however, very curious about the meaning of the writing, so asked the Vizier if he knew anyone who could translate it.
“Gracious lord and master,” answered Mansor, “near the great Mosque lives a man named Selim the Scholar, who understands all languages. Bid him come hither; perhaps he can read these secret instructions.”
The learned man was sent for at once.
“Selim,” said the Caliph, “you are said to be well informed. Look at this writing: if you can read it you shall have a fine new coat; if you cannot, you shall be bastinadoed on back and feet, and everyone shall know that Selim the Scholar has not the wisdom he pretends.”
Selim bowed humbly and said: “Thy will be done, great lord!” For some minutes he scanned the writing, then exclaimed: “This is Latin, great lord; if not, may I be hanged!”
“Then if it is Latin, tell us what it says,” returned the Caliph.
Selim read thus: “Thou, who this findest, praise Allah for his mercy! Whoever snuffs the powder in this box and says “Mutabor,” changes himself to the form of an animal, and will be able to understand animal language. Should he desire to resume his manhood, he need only turn to the east, bow three times, and repeat the word. But he must beware lest during his metamorphosis he laughs; if so, he will forget the magic word and remain forever an animal.”
Satisfied with Selim’s translation, the Caliph, binding him by solemn oaths not to divulge the secret between them gave him a new kaftan and sent him away. To his Grand Vizier, he said: “I call that a good bargain, Mansor! I should like for once in a way to be an animal. To-morrow morning come to me. We will go together outside the city, snuff a little of this powder, and understand, perhaps, the language of those which fly, swim, or crawl.”
Hardly had the Caliph Casid breakfasted the following morning ere the Grand Vizier appeared ready for the appointed walk. The Caliph put the snuff-box safely in his sash and bidding his followers remain in the city, set out alone with the Grand Vizier. First, they walked through the gardens of the Caliphate; but hurriedly, for they were anxious to try the experiment, and the Vizier spoke of a pond outside the walls where he had seen many animals, but particularly storks, whose dignified actions and hoarse cries had often attracted his attention.
The Caliph, therefore, decided in favor of the pond, and together they walked to its bank, where there were quite a number of these quaint birds, who took no notice of their approach but continued to fish for frogs. At the same time, they noticed overhead another stork which was hastening to join the rest.
“I’ll wager my beard,” said the Vizier, “that these storks have plenty to say to each other. What do you think of our turning storks for a time?”
“An excellent idea,” said the Caliph. “But first let us carefully remember exactly how to become men again. We must bow three times to the east, and say ‘Mutabor,’ then I shall be Caliph and you Grand Vizier. But, in the name of Allah, no laughing, or we shall indeed be in a fix!”
While the Caliph was speaking, he observed how the Stork above their heads balanced his wings and slowly dropped to earth. Quickly he drew forth the box, took a good pinch of snuff, the Vizier doing the same, and both cried: ‘Mutabor.’
Immediately their legs shriveled and became thin and red; their lovely yellow slippers became storks’ feet and their arms wings; their necks stretched till they were nearly a yard long; their beards disappeared, and their bodies were covered with feathers.
“You have a beautiful bill, my Grand Vizier,” said the Caliph in some astonishment. “By the beard of the Prophet, this is indeed a transformation.”
“Thank you for the compliment,” said the Grand Vizier, bowing. “May I return it by saying that your Highness is even handsome as a stork than as a Caliph? But would it not be as well to join our comrades at once, and ascertain whether we really can understand stork language?”
By this time the other Stork had settled down. It rubbed its bill against its feet, plumed its feathers and went to the pond. The two new Storks, however, hurried after it, and on nearing the group, to their amazement, heard the following conversation:
“Good morning, Madame Longlegs. You are out early this morning.”
“Good morning to you, dear Chatterbox! Yes, I have had a nice little breakfast. How have you fared? I suppose you only ‘pecked a bit’ a mere quarter of a lizard or hind leg of a frog!”
“Thank you very much. I have not much appetite to-day. Besides, I have to dance for the entertainment of my father’s guests. Excuse me if I leave you. I must practice a few steps.”
And without ceremony, Miss Stork left her companions and at once began her posturing. The Caliph and the Vizier watched her with curious interest; but when she stood on one foot and waved her wings affectedly, they could no longer contain their feelings, but broke into a hearty peal of laughter.
The Caliph was the first to realize the seriousness of the situation. “This is a joke which gold cannot pay for,” said he.
The Grand Vizier, too, began to regret that they had not sufficiently remembered that they were on no account to laugh. He tried to conceal his discomfiture by exclaiming: “By Mecca and Medina! It would be a fine thing if I must remain a stork forever. Can you, my lord, remember that stupid word? It has completely slipped my memory.”
Said the Caliph: “Three times must we bow towards the east; and then say ‘Mu – Mu – Mu -‘” but no more could he recall, and both he and the Caliph had no choice but to remain Storks.
Sadly they wandered through the fields, not knowing what their unfortunate condition might bring upon them. Storks they must remain for the present. It was useless to return to the city and attempt to explain themselves, for who would believe a Stork if he said: “Good people, I am your Caliph!” Or, if belief were accorded, was it likely that the people of Bagdad would consent to be ruled by a Stork? So day by day passed by, and they sustained themselves with wild fruit, finding some difficulty in eating with those long bills. For lizards and frogs, they had no appetite. Their one pleasure in this unfortunate state was the ability to fly, and they often flew to Bagdad, and from the roofs watched the doings in the city.
At first, they only noticed much sorrow and bewilderment on the part of the people; but about four days after their transformation, as they were resting on the roof of the Caliph’s palace, they saw a splendid procession pass through the streets.
Drums and pipes sounded, a man in a gold and scarlet cloak sat on a splendidly caparisoned horse surrounded with liveried guards. Half Bagdad acclaimed him thus:
“Hail, Miszra, Lord of Bagdad!”
The two Storks looked at one another, and then the Caliph said:
“Guess you not, Mansor, why I have been bewitched? This Miszra is the son of my greatest enemy, the mighty magician Cassimir, who in an evil hour swore revenge against me. But I will not despair! Come with me, faithful companion in misery. Let us make a pilgrimage to the grave of the Prophet. Perhaps on that holy spot, we shall recall the magic word.”
So they forsook the roof of the Palace and flew towards Medina.
But they were not yet well accustomed to flying, for they had had little practice, and at last, the Grand Vizier gasped out:
“Great lord, with your permission I will rest a little. You fly too fast for me. Evening draws near; would it not be well to seek some shelter for two-night?”
To this, the Caliph agreed, and as they perceived in the valley nearby a ruin which still had some sort of a roof, they flew in its direction. It had evidently been at one time a castle. Although terribly dilapidated, there were remains of stately apartments and splendid passages. The Caliph and the Vizier traversed these with some interest, but suddenly Mansor stopped.
“Lord and deliverer,” faltered him, “it is rather ridiculous for a Grand Vizier, even for a Stork, to be afraid of ghosts. But I hear sobbings and sighings, and my courage fails me!”
The Caliph paused and listened, and heard most unmistakably the soft weeping either of a human being or some animal. Full of impatience, he would have pressed forward to ascertain the cause of this distress, but the Grand Vizier seized hold of Casid’s wing so that he should not wantonly rush into any new danger. But it was no use. The Caliph, whether man or stork, had a brave heart, and wrenching himself free at the expense of a few feathers, he plunged into a dark passage. Ere long he came to some broken stairs leading to a door, only half fastened, and from behind which the sobs evidently came. Pressing his beak against this door and carefully awaiting surprises, he saw through the narrow opening a ruined chamber, lighted only by a deep casement window on the sill of which was sitting a large night-owl. Thick tears were streaming from her big round eyes, and with plaintive cries, she bemoaned her lot. But when she saw the Caliph and the Grand Vizier she uttered a joyful cry. Hastily brushing the tears from her eyes with a dexterous movement of her brown wings, she, much to the astonishment of the two men, called out in excellent Arabic:
“Welcome, welcome, good Storks. You are the tokens of my deliverance; for long ago it was told me that through Storks I should meet with good luck.”
As soon as the Caliph recovered from his astonishment, he drew his feet together in an elegant pose, bowed his long neck, and said:
“Night-Owl! From your words, I gather you are a fellow-sufferer with ourselves. But, alas! Any hope you may have formed as to our capacity to assist you are doomed to disappointment. You will the better understand this if we relate to you our sad story.”
When the Caliph concluded his recital the Owl said:
“Listen to my tale of woe, and then you will agree that I am as unfortunate as you. My father is the King of India, and I, his only and unhappy daughter, am named Lusa. The magician Cassimir, who bewitched you, worked his arts on me also. He came one day to my father and asked me in marriage for his son Miszra. My father threw him down the palace stairs. But the wretch determined on an abominable vengeance, and one morning when I was walking in the palace garden he disguised himself as a slave, and brought me a goblet containing a draught, which had the effect of changing me into an Owl.” He then conveyed me to this place, and his hateful voice hissed in my ear these terrible words:
“In this horrible tower, you shall remain till you die, unless someone, in spite of your hideous condition, will make you his wife. So I revenge myself on you and your father!”
“Since then many months have passed by, and all alone I have lived in this gloomy tower. Nature’s beauties cannot console me, for in the daytime I am blind; only at night can I see.”
The Owl paused, and again brushed from her eyes the tears caused by her sad thoughts.
The story told by the Princess made the Caliph very grave.
“It seems to me,” he said at last, “that between your troubles and my own there is some resemblance; but where shall we find the key to this riddle?”
The Owl replied:
“My lord, I only know this, that when I was a quiet young girl, a wise woman foretold that a Stork would bring me luck; and I have an idea how we may deliver ourselves.”
The Caliph was astounded and asked what she meant.
“The magician who has wrought evil on us all,” said she, “comes once every month to these ruins. Not far from this apartment is a large hall; there he and others of his sort hold feastings and consultations. I have often watched them. They tell each other of their scandalous tricks; perhaps this next time they meet the magic word you have so unfortunately forgotten may be disclosed.”
“Oh, dearest Princess,” cried the Caliph, “tell us when will they come, and where is the hall?”
The Owl was silent for a few minutes. Then: “Do not think me unkind,” said she, “but it is only on one condition that I can grant your wish”
“Name it, name it,” cried Casid. “Every moment is precious, and no conditions will be too difficult!”
The Owl replied: “I also wish to be free, but this can only happen if one of you offers to marry me that is the condition.”
At this, the Storks seemed rather confused, and the Caliph beckoned the Grand Vizier aside.
“Mansor,” said he, whispering, “this is a stupid idea, but you can marry the Owl afterward.”
“Indeed,” said the Vizier, “so that my wife may scratch my eyes out when I return home! Besides, look what an old man I am. You are young and unmarried, and can easily offer your hand to a young and beautiful Princess!”
“That is just the point,” sighed the Caliph dejectedly, drooping his wings. “How do we know she is young and beautiful? I do not care to buy a pig in a poke.”
They spoke seriously for some time, but when the Caliph realized that the Vizier would rather remain a Stork than marry the Owl, he gave way and agreed himself fulfill this hard condition. The Owl was delighted with the result of their conference. She assured them that they had all chanced to meet at a particularly lucky moment, for this very night the merchants would assemble.
So all three together they left the chamber and went towards the hall. Through many dark passages, they softly stepped. At last a bright light streamed through a crack in a wall. As they approached nearer the Owl begged them to make no noise whatever. From the stones on which they stood, they could perceive all that was going on in the hall. Many-colored lamps shed a light equal to that of day. In the middle was a round table with a variety of choice dishes thereon. Roundabout the table were couches on which men were sitting. In one of these men, the Caliph recognized the peddler who had sold the magic powder. His neighbor at the table was asking him for the latest details of his business. Then, among other anecdotes, he told the story of the Caliph and his Vizier.
“And what was the word you gave him?” asked another magician.
“A Latin word, ‘Mutabor,’” was the reply.
When the Storks heard this they were beside themselves with joy. They ran so fast from the place that the Owl could scarcely keep up with them.
Then said the Caliph to the Owl: “Saviour of my life and of the life of my friend, receive our ever-heartfelt thanks and honor me by becoming my wife.” Then he turned to the east, for the first rays of the morning sun were showing above the mountain-tops, and he and the Vizier bowed their long necks.”
“Mutabor,” cried they, and in an instant were they restored to their former state; and in the delight of the moment, the Caliph and Vizier laughed and wept in each other’s arms. But imagine their astonishment when they saw a lovely woman, most beautifully dressed, standing before them, who smilingly gave her hand to the Caliph.
“Cannot you recognize your Night-Owl?” said she; and the Caliph was so enraptured with her beauty and grace than he more than once declared that he was only too glad that he had been changed into a Stork.
Three very happy people journeyed together to Bagdad. The Caliph found among his clothes, not only the snuff-box, but his purse; and was, therefore, able to buy, in the villages they passed through, such things as were necessary, so without any delay they reached the city. Arriving there the Caliph heard strange news. He had been mourned as dead. Now, however, his people hastened to rejoice over his happy return, and with each hour their hatred of the usurper Miszra increased. The crowd rushed to the Palace and seized both father and son. The old man was sent by the Caliph to the tower in which the Princess had lived as an Owl, and there he was hanged. To the son, who was ignorant of his father’s magic arts, the Caliph gave the choice of death or a pinch of snuff. As he chose the latter, the Grand Vizier handed him the box. A mighty pinch and the magic word pronounced by the Caliph changed Miszra into a Stork, and confined in an iron cage, he passed the rest of his life in the Palace garden.
Long and happily lived the Caliph Casid with his Princess wife: his happiest hours, perhaps, still being those of the Grand Vizier’s afternoon calls, when they often talked over their strange experiences. And sometimes when the Caliph was in a merry mood he would tease the Grand Vizier about his appearance as a Stork. He would strut stiffly up and down the apartment, flap his arms as if they were wings, and bow as the forgetful Vizier did, crying, “Mu, Mu!” This little scene always gave great delight to the Calipha and her children; but after the Caliph had made fun of his friend with his clapping, croaking, and bowing, and his “Mu, mu, mu!” the Vizier was wont to request that the part of the story referring to the Night-Owl the Calipha herself should relate.