This excerpt is from a longer story called The Wezeer and the Sapphire. The aged wezeer, or more conventionally, vizier, on a quest to recover a stolen jewel, has found himself in India where he has been brought before a great maharaja. The maharaja embarks on a series of tales in order to make a point that he is uncertain of. The tales are told in the manner of The Arabian Nights, in which stories are nested in a group, first working their way in, and then back out.

Al-Maharajan’s eyes swept the Divan, seizing the attention of all present. When the murmuring died down he once again addressed the anxious Wezeer. “Does it not seem to you that the situation is much like that in The Tale of the Camel and the Sand Flea?”

“O King of the Age,” said the Wezeer. “What tale would that be?”

Al-Maharajan answered as follows:

The Tale of the Camel and the Sand Flea

Once, in the land of the Kafirs, there was a camel who had grown so weary of the daily toil that plagued his life that he escaped from his master and set out across the mountains and the desert to find the land of his birth. It was his intention, when he arrived there, to comfort himself in the green oases that he remembered from his childhood, and to spend the rest of his days in idleness and contentment.

On a particular morning, as he was traveling through a wilderness of sand and scrub, a sparrow came and perched on his back to rest its wings. The camel felt the weight of the bird and called out, “What’s this!”

“A traveler,” came the answer.

This incensed the camel, since he had not escaped and endured the hardships of his journey to be used in such a manner. “And why should I give passage to you?” the camel asked. “I am no beast of burden. Make your own way across this wilderness, as I make mine.”

So the sparrow flew off, cursing the camel for his rudeness.

A short while later a botfly, weary from struggling against the desert wind, settled onto the camel’s neck. The camel shuddered when he felt the weight and called out, “What's this, another traveler!”

“For just a short ways,” the botfly replied, “Until I have my strength back.”

The camel bristled at this. “Do you take me for some beast of burden. I'm no such thing. Make your own way as I make mine.” Then he snapped his tail and spat.

The botfly, offended by such an uncourteous welcome, took off back into the wind.

Before the camel had gone much farther a sand flea jumped onto his leg. When the camel felt the weight of the flea his temper flared. “You there!” he cried. “Looking for a free ride too, I suppose?”

“If you don’t object,” said the sand flea.

“Indeed I do object!” said the camel. “I am no beast of burden. Make your own way, as I make mine.”

But the sand flea merely laughed. “If you are no beast of burden, then why do you carry this great hump on your back? It would seem to me that you are both suited and accustomed to burdens.”

At this the camel stopped and planted his feet in the sand. “That’s it,” he said, “Not another step till you get off.” Then he shook himself from head to tail while he bellowed out the most horrible sounds that wind and throat could ever produce. But the sand flea dug his own feet into the camel’s hide and didn’t budge. And when the camel had finished with his fit of rage, the sand flea nipped him with his jaws and said, “Hut-hut! walk on!”

That was the final straw. Sooner than concede to a new master the camel would destroy himself and all the world along with him. He roared to the heavens, calling down fire and lightening. He commanded the earth to open, the hills to tumble, the sands to swallow him up. And when none of these things came to pass he began to toss his head, rolling his neck in a great circle, faster and faster until the sky and the ground and all the desert around him were nothing but a smear of blue and brown. And faster still, he spun his head until he felt his neck stretching out like taffy, and each of the joints from his head to his shoulders popped like a tent flap snapping in the wind.

"You'll break your own neck if you keep that up," said the sand flea.

"Indeed I will," said the camel gasping for breath, “and here I’ll lie till the wind blows the hide off my bones and the sun burns them white as ash, so you might as well get off and start walking now!” and he spun his head even faster.

“Now just a moment,” said the sand flea. “While I can appreciate your determination, I think you’re missing a point here.”

“Wh-what p-point?” asked the camel, his tongue fluttering like a bird caught in a whirlwind

“The p-point, ignorant camel, is that death will negate your victory, and I’ll be no worse off than I was before you came along.”

“Th-then g-g-get off!”

“I probably will after you’ve killed yourself, and then won’t you look a fool, lying dead here in the middle of nowhere, and for no good reason at all. If I were you I’d consider the lesson of The Spider and the Melon.”

The Camel stopped spinning his head and turned his neck, which was now somewhat longer than usual and as kinked and limp as an old rope. He twisted it around until he was looking right at the spot on his haunch where the sand flea had bit him. “And what would that lesson be?” he asked.

So the sand flea answered as follows:—

The Tale of the Spider and the Melon

Once, long ago, in an oasis on the edge of the great Nefud, a spider crept out from under a log to set about his business of snaring flies. The spider spun his web neatly between a stone and a twig, then waited for a hapless fly to become entangled. The morning passed without result, and the spider’s patience was strained by the long hours of fruitless waiting. In the afternoon several flies came and hovered nearby, but they eyed him suspiciously and not a single one flew near the web. This destroyed his patience completely, and the spider began to pace and grumble to himself about the futility of life’s efforts.

Nearby there was a melon lying on the ground. It had grown overripe, and as it baked and sweated in the hot sun the flies swarmed around it in a frenzy of delight. After a while a bird came and, seeing all those flies gorging themselves and getting drunk on the fermenting juice that bled from the rind, the bird began eating them. When the bird noticed the spider looking out from its web, and saw the hunger in his eyes he said, “What a shame you have to wait for the flies to come to you. You should look more like a melon and less like a spider.”

As he watched the bird eat his fill the spider thought, “What this bird says is true. And perhaps there’s a way.” So after the bird had flown off, the spider went to the edge of the pool and began drinking water. He drank and drank, and soon his body began to swell. At first it swelled to the size of a berry, and the spider felt as if he would burst. But it was a melon, not a berry, that shaped his goal, and so he continued drinking until he was the size of a plum. Good, he thought, a bit more and I’ll have flies all over me.

He forced even more water into his mouth and down his gullet, feeling himself growing bigger and rounder with every gulp. At last he raised his head and let himself roll backward so that he could take a measure of his size. It was magnificent. But when he tried to move around he found that he had made himself so large that his legs were of no use at all. His belly was fully the size of a small melon, and the rest of him merely stuck out of the top like a frayed stem. As the flies came and began buzzing around, he was helpless to do anything more than watch.

At this point the bird returned. “Well, well,” he said. “This is a fine dinner you’ve rounded up for me.” And with that the bird began picking the flies off the spider’s body and eating them. The spider was enraged, and he shouted and cursed the bird. But the bird laughed and went on eating. When he’d finished with the flies he honed the point of his beak on a stone and said to the spider, “My thanks for that, and now I think I’ll see if this rare melon tastes as delicious as it looks.”

At the sight of the razor-sharp beak aimed like a dagger at his stomach the spider’s wrath gave out to despair. “Oh have mercy,” he pleaded. “It was at your own suggestion that I did this. And now you’d take advantage of my helplessness? Please, I beg of you.”

“Covet not life, for death is unavoidable,” said the bird as he looked for just the right spot to make the plunge. “If you’d been content to remain a spider, instead of becoming a melon, you wouldn’t be in this predicament. Why should I spare you the consequence of your own foolishness?”

“If the price of foolishness is death, then who shall learn wisdom?” cried the spider. “For do you not know The Story of The Penguin and the Burgoo Chef.”

“I do not,” said the bird. “But at your bidding I would hear it.”

So the spider answered as follows:—

The Tale of the Penguin and the Burgoo Chef

One morning in a land far away, beyond the Al-Hind and beyond the Al-Sind, far across a great sea that marks the end of the regions known to men, a penguin sat on an ice floe enjoying the faint warmth of the dim antarctic sun. It was uncommon there for the sun to show itself at all, for the penguin’s home was the birthplace of storms, where all the world’s tempests arise before journeying off to their destinations.

Because the storms have so far to travel they rise up with monumental fury. An afternoon shower on the shores of the Bosporus would have to begin its life as a typhoon to propel itself for such a distance and still have enough drops of rain to water the gardens and fill the cisterns. And the great monsoons that wash the plains of Al–Hind are borne of such rage between sea and sky that Heaven itself echoes with the crash of thunder, the roar of wind, and the angelic houris cover their gentle eyes in dread.

Living in such a place it was no surprise to the penguin when his brief gleam of sunshine was eclipsed by a mountain of black cloud that towered up before him like an evil Gennee spewing from a bottle. But that morning the penguin was in a dreamy mood. His dream was of the sun, of its light and its warmth. Did it shine more brightly in other lands? he wondered. Perhaps it did. “Take me with you,” he said to the storm. “I would see these other lands.” With that the storm snatched him off the ice and hurled him into its thunderhead.

For days the storm carried the penguin as it blew across the sea and over the mountains and the plains, until finally its force was spent. Then, as it wrung its last drop of water from its last wisp of cloud, the storm set him down in the land of the sun… .

The story of The Penguin and the Burgoo Chef was continued up to the point where the perfidious Burgoo Chef has deceived the penguin into believing that a cauldron filled with water is actually a hole in the desert leading to the sea beneeth. The penguin dives in, discovers that he is actually there as an ingredient, and beseeches the burgoo chef to show compassion by comparing the situation to the story of Abu-Murrah and the Seven Kumquats. A story which, of course, the Burgoo Chef has never heard.

And so it went, from within one unresolved story to the next, until the Wezeer began to wonder how the Sultan would ever be able to work his way back to establish whatever point he was trying to make. From Abu-Murrah and the Seven Kumquats it went to Abu-Murrah telling the story of The Oryx and the Flounder. The flounder telling the story of The ’Efreet and the Tortoise. And so on through The Barnacle and the Woodpecker, The Virgin and the Lizard, Maaroof the Harness Mender, Baba Mustafa and The Wonderful Bung, The Hyena and the Kadi, The Hippogriff in the Tallow Vat, The Eunuch and the Gennee. But then, at the point in the story of The Eunuch and the Gennee where Al-Maharajan, speaking now in the voice of a hippogriff imitating a gennee says to the lovesick eunuch: “Why should I use my powers to aid you in deceiving your rightful master?”

And the eunuch replies, again in the voice of the hippogriff, which was actually meant to be the voice of the Kadi imitating the hippogriff who is now imitating the constrained voice of the eunuch, who says: “To restore what was unjustly taken from me. After all, is this not as in the story of The Wezeer and the Sapphire?”

This was unexpected. The Wezeer listened in amazement as his own story was told right up to the point of that very moment. And then Al-Maharajan, still speaking in the voice of the eunuch, who was now imitating both the Wezeer and Al-Maharajan himself, embarked on the story’s conclusion, in which the wise Sultan said:

“May it not be so that the path you take to the verge of death will lead to an outcome commensurate with the course of your actions?” And plucking the stone from off his turban he held it to the light. “What I took to be a flawless gem has an imperfection that was invisible to me until this moment. My pleasure is diminished by this discovery, and so I offer it to you that it may console your master for his loss.” And handing the sapphire to the Wezeer he said, “Such devotion is deserving of reward, and I am certain your master will compensate you well for all that you have endured. But if you would choose to remain here, I would grant you a home and pension to live on for the rest of your days. The jewel would be delivered to your master by my own guards, and your obligation would be fulfilled.” But the Wezeer declined. “My honor decrees that I be duly discharged from one master before I may serve another,” he said. “Grateful as I am, it is my duty to return.” And when the Wezeer was strong enough to travel he was given a ship and men and returned to his country.”

Here the ellipsis of the stories had reached its apogee, and the Sultan began to work his way back. As the sapphire had been restored to it’s rightful owner, so the eunuch’s parts were restored and his love for the harem slave consummated, thus serving as an example to the heartbroken Hippogriff pining away in the tallow vat, which in turn provided a lesson in perseverance for the Kadi to use in attempting to reform the Hyena, thereby giving Baba Mustafa a moral precedent for… .

But it was here, right at this point, that the Wezeer spoke up.

And it is here that this selection ends, and here that the story moves back toward its main plot.

©Rick Fine