Columnist for Monday, 5/14 - Sun Ra

Risk

Concerning the painting by Jean-Leon Gerome at the Jocelyn Museum.

Husein had always disliked risk.

When his eldest brother rose up to seize power from their father, and the family was divided in fratricidal warfare, Husein had contrived to be in the remote Persian borderlands. By the time he and his retinue had returned to Baghdad, his brother's lack of preparation was showing, and Husein and his lancers swore fealty to his father. Mehmet and four other of Husein's brothers wound up being hung by their entrails from the city gates, and Husein became a palace favorite.

Thus it was, that upon the occasion of a visit by the Sultan of Damascus, that Husein was chosen to be the centerpiece of his father's entertainment.

Now, old King Mehmet (not to be confused with the rebellious, and now deceased, brother) was very unlike his third son, and loved risk. He was a profligate gambler, and the higher the stakes, the more he loved the game. For his harem, he had a tremendous wheel fabricated, upon which the names of his wives were inscribed, and he used it nightly, for the obvious purpose. To add spice to the venture, some of the names on the wheel were of wives not his own. And although Mehmet would deny it, it was whispered in the marketplace that some of the names were of men, or of beasts.

But let us concern ourselves with Husein. The Sultan of Damascus had brought with him a most excellent teller of tales, who regaled the court with fabulous stories well into the night. One of these tales was that of the Lady and the Tiger, a story with which you are doubtless familiar - a young man must choose between two doors, one of which contains a young lady, and one of which a ferocious tiger.

King Mehmet was fascinated by this tale, and declared at its conclusion that he would have it done himself; the lady would be the finest young lady of Baghdad's nobility, and the young man making the choice would be no other than own his favorite son, Husein.

Needless to say, Husein was not pleased by this development.

Now, it took some time to find the "finest noble lady", and since the prospect was to be wedded to the king's favorite son, there was some fighting for the honor. Eventually, the Al'Noor family was chosen to present their youngest daughter, Nuwarrah, as the prize for which young Husein would gamble his life. It was rumored that she was the most beautiful maiden in all the kingdom, a dusky rose of the desert with full lips and beautiful black eyes. Of course, she was kept locked behind seven times seven doors, and bedecked in veils both fragrant and opaque, so that only her eyes really could be ascertained.

All the fuss about the maiden allowed Husein time to make some preparation, and he was not slow to sieze it. So when the day came that he was led into the palace, and stood before the two doors, he was not afraid.

Husein knew also, that he was beloved of his people, and of his father, and thus it came as no surprise to him, as he stood in the great, pillared hall, with an audience of hundreds in the gallery above, that he found in his ceremonial robe a slip of paper indicating which of the doors he should choose.

There were great gasps of dismay when he chose the other door.

As he opened it, his father could not help but shout, "No, my son! That is not the right door!"

Husein went in.

Sure enough, pacing around the room was the tiger. A huge beast, brought from the far shores of the Caspian Sea when Husein was young. It was thrice his size, and had killed many men; criminals were sometimes thrown to the tiger for the king's amusement.

It saw Husein; its great golden eyes remained upon him, as it padded slowly forward.

Husein was pushed back as the tiger shoved its head into his stomach, and he spoke soft words to it, as he scratched behind its ears.

For Husein had spoken with the handler of beasts, and ensured that it was this tiger, the tiger that Husein had fed as a child, the tiger that he had fed daily for the last month, that would be in the room. And the handler of beasts had ensured (against the King's orders) that the tiger was well fed before being led here.

The tiger rumbled contentedly. Soon it slept on the rug.

Husein sighed, and sat himself near it. They would come to see what had befallen him, soon, and marvel at his luck. Most of them would see the hand behind this wonder, of course - his hand - but no-one would complain. Except for the family of Nuwarrah.

Nuwarrah. Husein looked at the sleeping cat. Was she really a dusky rose of the desert? It was impossible to know. She might look like his grandmother. And he hated risks.

Yes, he told himself, he had chosen the right door.

Still...


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