There was once a woman who could not conceive, for all her husband's assaulting. So one day she prayed to Allah, saying, "Give me a daughter, even if she be not proof against the smell of flax!"
In speaking thus of the smell of flax she meant that she would have a daughter, even if the girl were so delicate and sensitive that the anodyne smell of flax would take hold of her throat and kill her.
Soon the woman conceived and easily bore a daughter, as fair as the rising moon, as pale and delicate as moonlight.
When little Sittukhan, for such they called her, grew to be ten years old, the sultan's son passed beneath her window and saw her and loved her, and went back ailing to the palace.
Doctor succeeded doctor fruitlessly beside his bed; but, at last, an old woman, who had been sent by the porter's wife, visited him and said, after close scrutiny, "You are in love, or else you have a friend who loves you."
"I am in love," he answered.
"Tell me her name," she begged, "for I may be a bond between you."
"She is the fair Sittukhan," he replied; and she comforted him, saying, "Refresh your eyes and tranquilize your heart, for I will bring you into her presence."
Then she departed and sought out the girl, who was taking the air before her mother's door. After compliment and greeting, she said, "Allah protect so much beauty, my daughter! Girls like you, and with such lovely fingers, should learn to spin flax; for there is no more delightful sight than a spindle in spindle fingers." Then she went away.
At once the girl went to her mother, saying, "Mother, take me to the mistress."
"What mistress?" asked her mother.
"The flax mistress," answered the girl.
"Do not say such a thing!" cried the woman. "Flax is a danger to you. Its smell is fatal to your breast, a touch of it will kill you."
But her daughter reassured her, saying, "I shall not die," and so wept and insisted, that her mother sent her to the flax mistress.
The white girl stayed there for a day, learning to spin; and her fellow pupils marveled at her beauty and the beauty of her fingers. But, when a morsel of flax entered behind one of her nails, she fell swooning to the floor.
They thought her dead and sent to her father and mother, saying, "Allah prolong your days! Come and take up your daughter, for she is dead."
The man and his wife tore their garments for the loss of their only joy, and went, beaten by the wind of calamity, to bury her. But the old woman met them, and said, "You are rich folk, and it would be shame on you to lay so fair a girl in dust."
"What shall we do then?" they asked, and she replied, "Build her a pavilion in the midst of the waves of the river and couch her there upon a bed, that you may come to visit her."
So they built a pavilion of marble, on columns rising out of the river, and planted a garden about it with green lawns, and set the girl upon an ivory bed, and came there many times to weep.
What happened next?
The old woman went to the king's son, who still lay sick of love, and said to him, "Come with me to see the maiden. She waits you, couched in a pavilion above the waves of the river."
The prince rose up and bade his father's wazir come for a walk with him. The two went forth together and followed the old woman to the pavilion. Then the prince said, "Wait for me outside the door, for I shall not be long."
He entered the pavilion and began to weep by the ivory bed, recalling verses in the praise of so much beauty. He took the girl's hand to kiss it and, as he passed her slim white fingers through his own, noticed the morsel of flax lodged behind one of her nails. He wondered at this and delicately drew it forth.
At once the girl came out of her swoon and sat up upon the ivory bed. She smiled at the prince, and whispered, "Where am I?"
"You are with me," he answered, as he pressed her all against him. He kissed her and lay with her, and they stayed together for forty days and forty nights. Then the prince took leave of his love, saying, "My wazir is waiting outside the door. I will take him back to the palace and then return."
He found the wazir and walked with him across the garden towards the gate, until he was met by white roses growing with jasmine. The sight of these moved him, and he said to his companion, "The roses and the jasmine are white with the pallor of Sittukhan's cheeks! Wait here for three days longer, while I go to look upon the cheeks of Sittukhan."
He entered the pavilion again and stayed three days with Sittukhan, admiring the white roses and the jasmine of her cheeks.
Then he rejoined the wazir and walked with him across the garden towards the gate, until the carob, with its long black fruit, rose up to meet him. He was moved by the sight of it, and said, "The carobs are long and black like the brows of Sittukhan. O wazir, wait here for three more days, while I go to view Sittukhan's brows."
He entered the pavilion again and stayed three days with the girl, admiring her perfect brows, long and black like carobs hanging two by two.
Then he rejoined the wazir and walked with him towards the gate, until a springing fountain with its solitary jet rose up to meet him. He was moved by this sight and said to the wazir, "The jet of the fountain is as Sittukhan's waist. Wait here for thee days longer, while I go to gaze again upon the waist of Sittukhan."
He went up into the pavilion and stayed three days with the girl, admiring her waist, for it was as the slim jet of the fountain.
Then he rejoined the wazir and walked with him across the garden towards the gate. But Sittukhan, when she saw her lover come again a third time, had said to herself, "What brings him back?" So now she followed him down the stairs of the pavilion, and hid behind the door which gave on the garden to see what she might see.
The prince happened to turn and catch sight of her face. He returned toward her, pale and distracted, and said sadly, "Sittukhan, Sittukhan, I shall never see you more, never, never again." Then he departed with the wazir, and his mind was made up that he would not return.
Sittukhan wandered in the garden, weeping, lonely and regretting that she was not dead in very truth. As she walked by the water, she saw something sparkle in the grass and, on raising it, found it to be a talismanic ring. She rubbed the engraved carnelian of it, and the ring spoke, saying, "Behold here am I! What do you wish?"
"O ring of Sulaiman," answered Sittukhan, "I require a palace next to the palace of the prince who used to love me, and a beauty greater than my own."
"Shut your eye and open it!" said the ring; and, when the girl had done so, she found herself in a magnificent palace, next to the palace of the prince. She looked in a mirror which was there and marveled at her beauty.
Then she leaned at the window until her false love should pass by on his horse. When the prince saw her, he did not know her; but he loved her and hastened to his mother, saying, "Have you not some very beautiful thing which you can take as a present to the lady who dwells in the new palace? And can you not beg her, at the same time, to marry me?"
"I have two pieces of royal brocade," answered his mother, "I will take them to her and urge your suit with them." Without losing an hour, the queen visited Sittukhan, and said to her, "My daughter, I pray you to accept this present, and to marry my son."
The girl called her negress and gave her the pieces of brocade, bidding her cut them up for floor cloths; so the queen became angry and returned to her own dwelling.
When the son learned that the woman of his love had destined the cloth of gold for menial service, he begged his mother to take some richer present, and the queen paid a second visit, carrying a necklace of unflawed emeralds.
"Accept this gift, my daughter, and marry my son," she said; and Sittukhan answered, "O lady, your present is accepted." then she called her slave, saying, "Have the pigeons eaten yet?"
"Not yet, mistress," answered the slave.
"Take them these green trifles!" said Sittukhan.
When she heard this outrageous speech, the queen cried, "You have humbled us, my daughter. Now, at least, tell me plainly whether you wish to marry my son or no."
"If you desire me to marry him," answered Sittukhan, "bid him feign death, wrap him in seven winding-sheets, carry him in sad procession through the city, and let your people bury him in the garden of my palace."
"I will tell him your conditions," said the queen.
"What do you think!" cried the mother to her son, when she had returned to him. "If you wish to marry the girl, you must pretend to be dead, you must be wrapped in seven winding-sheets, you must be led in sad procession through the city, and you must be buried in her garden!"
"Is that all, dear mother?" asked the prince in great delight. "Then tear your clothes and weep, and cry, 'My son is dead!'"
The queen rent her garments and cried in a voice shrill with pain, "Calamity and woe! My son is dead!"
All the folk of the palace ran to that place and, seeing the prince stretched upon the floor with the queen weeping above him, washed the body and wrapped it in seven winding-sheets. Then the old men and the readers of the Koran came together and formed a procession, which went throughout the city, carrying the youth covered with precious shawls. Finally they set down their burden in Sittukhan's garden and went their way.
As soon as the last had departed, the girl, who had once died of a morsel of flax, whose cheeks were jasmine and white roses, whose brows were carobs two by two, whose waist was the slim jet of the fountain, went down to the prince and unwrapped the seven winding-sheets from about him, one by one.
Then "Is it you?" she said. "You are ready to go very far for women; you must be fond of them!" The prince bit his finger in confusion, but Sittukhan reassured him, saying, "It does not matter this time!"
And they dwelt together in love delight.
Powys Mathers: The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night: London 1964, v. 4, p. 390