The Story of the Caliph Stork by Wilhelm Hauff

The Caliph Chasid of Bagdad was sitting one fine summer afternoon comfortably on his divan; he had slept a little, for it was a sultry day, and he looked quite refreshed after his nap. He smoked a long rosewood pipe, sipped now and then a little coffee which a slave poured out for him, and stroked his beard contentedly whenever he had enjoyed it. In short, it could be seen at a glance that the Caliph felt very comfortable. At such a time it was easy to approach him, as he was very good-tempered and affable, wherefore his Grand Vizier Mansor visited him every day about this time. This afternoon he came as usual, looking, however, very grave, a rare thing for him. The Caliph took the pipe out of his mouth and said: ‘Why dost thou make so grave a face, Grand Vizier?’ The Grand Vizier folded his arms across his breast, bowed to his master and answered: ‘Master! whether I assume a grave appearance I know not, but down below in the palace stands a pedlar who has such fine wares that it vexes me that I have no money to spare.’

The Caliph, who had long desired to rejoice the heart of his Grand Vizier, ordered his black slave to fetch the pedlar. In a few moments the slave returned with him. He was a stout little man, swarthy in the face, and dressed in rags. He carried a box in which he had all sorts of wares, pearls, and rings, pistols with richly inlaid stocks, goblets, and combs. The Caliph and his Vizier inspected everything, and the Caliph at last bought for himself and Vizier a pair of pistols, and for the Vizier’s wife a comb. As the pedlar was about to close his box again, the Caliph caught sight of a little drawer, and asked whether it also contained some wares. The pedlar pulled out the drawer, and exhibited a snuff-box containing a black powder and a piece of paper with peculiar writing on it, which neither the Caliph nor Mansor could read. ‘These things were given to me one day by a merchant who found them in the streets of Mecca,’ said the pedlar. ‘I know not what they are; but you may have them for a small sum, for they are of no use to me.’ The Caliph, who was very fond of having old manuscripts in his library, though unable to read them, bought both paper and box and dismissed the pedlar. Still he thought he would like to know what the writing meant, and asked the Vizier if he did not know anybody who might decipher it. ‘Most gracious lord and master,’ answered the latter, ‘near the Great Mosque lives a man called Selim the learned; he knows all languages. Send for him; perhaps he can explain these mysterious signs.’

The learned Selim soon arrived. ‘Selim,’ said the Caliph to him, ‘Selim, it is said thou art very learned. Just look at this writing whether thou canst read it; if thou canst read it, thou gettest a new robe of honour from me; if thou canst not, thou gettest twelve boxes on the ears and twenty-five lashes on the soles of thy feet, for having been called Selim the learned without cause.’ Selim bowed and said: ‘Thy will be done, O Master!’ For a long time he looked at the writing; suddenly, however, he exclaimed: ‘That is Latin, O Master, or let me be hung!’ ‘Say what it means,’ demanded the Caliph, ‘if it is Latin.’

Selim began to translate: ‘Man who findeth this, praise Allah for his goodness. He who takes a pinch of this powder in this box and therewith says “Mutabor,” can change himself into any animal, and also understand the language of animals. If he afterwards wish to resume his human form, let him bow thrice to the East and say the same word. But beware when thou art changed that thou laughest not, or the magic word will depart from thy memory for ever, and thou remainest a beast.’

When Selim the learned had read this, the Caliph was pleased beyond measure. He made the learned man swear not to reveal the secret to any one, presented him with a splendid robe, and dismissed him. Then turning to his Grand Vizier he said: ‘This I call making a bargain, Mansor! How glad I am at being able to become an animal! Come to me to-morrow morning. We will then go together into the fields, take a pinch out of the box, and then listen to what is said in the air and the water, in wood and field.’

Next morning, scarcely had the Caliph Chasid breakfasted and dressed himself, when the Grand Vizier appeared as ordered, to accompany him on his walk. The Caliph put the box with the magic powder in his girdle, and having ordered his suite to remain behind, he and the Grand Vizier set out alone on the journey. They first passed through the large gardens of the Caliph, but looked in vain for any living thing on which to try the experiment. The Vizier at last proposed to pursue their journey to a pond, where he had often seen many animals, especially storks, whose grave manners and clappings had always excited his attention.

The Caliph approved of the Vizier’s proposal, and went with him towards the pond. Having arrived there, they saw a stork soberly pacing up and down looking for frogs, and chattering something now and then to itself. At the same moment they saw far up in the sky another stork hovering in this direction.

‘I wager my beard, most gracious Master,’ said the Grand Vizier, ‘this long-legged pair are now having a pleasant talk. How would it be if we turned into storks?’

‘Wisely spoken,’ replied the Caliph. ‘But first, let us consider how we may become men again. It is easy enough! If we bow thrice to the East, and say Mutabor, I shall be Caliph and thou Vizier. But for heaven’s sake no laughing, or we are lost.’

While the Caliph spoke thus, he saw the other stork hovering over their heads, and slowly alighting on the ground. Quickly he snatched the box from his girdle, took a hearty pinch, gave the box to the Grand Vizier, who did the like, and both exclaimed ‘Mutabor!’

Then their legs shrivelled and became thin and red, the beautiful yellow slippers of the Caliph and those of his Vizier changed into ugly storks’ feet, their arms grew into wings, their necks shot up from their shoulders and reached a yard in length, their beards vanished, and soft feathers covered their bodies.

‘You have a pretty beak, Mr. Grand Vizier,’ said the Caliph after a surprised silence. ‘By the beard of the Prophet, I have never seen such things in my life!’ ‘Thanks humbly,’ replied the Vizier, bowing; ‘but if I might dare say so, I should avow that your Highness looks almost handsomer as a stork than a Caliph. But come, if it pleases you, let us listen to our comrades yonder and hear if we really speak storkish.’

Meanwhile the other stork had reached the ground. It cleaned its feet with its beak, settled its feathers, and walked up to the first stork. The two new storks hastened to get near them, and to their surprise heard the following conversation: ‘Good morning, Madam Longlegs! You are early on the meadows.’ ‘Thank you, dear Clapper-beak! I have been to get a little breakfast. Would you like to have a quarter of a lizard or a little leg of a frog?’ ‘Much obliged; but I have no appetite this morning. Besides, I have come upon quite a different errand on the meadow. I am to dance before my father’s guests to-day, and I want to practise a little quietly.’

Thereupon the young stork began to caper about the field in peculiar movements. The Caliph and Mansor watched her, very much surprised. But when she stood on one leg in a picturesque attitude, and fluttered her wings to increase the effect, neither of them could resist; laughter without stopping burst from their beaks, from which they only recovered a long time afterwards. The Caliph was the first to recover self-possession: ‘That was a joke,’ he exclaimed, ‘which cannot be bought for gold. What a pity the stupid animals should have been scared by our laughter, else they would also have sung, to be sure!’

But now it occurred to the Grand Vizier that laughing during the enchantment was forbidden. He therefore communicated his fears to the Caliph. ‘By Mecca and Medina, that would be a bad joke if I were to remain a stork! Do bethink thee of the stupid word; I cannot recall it.’

‘Three times we must bow to the East and say: Mu—Mu—Mu.’

They turned towards the East and kept on bowing continually till their beaks nearly touched the ground. But, alas! the magic word had escaped them, and often as the Caliph bowed, and eagerly as his Vizier added Mu—Mu—, yet every recollection of it had gone, and the poor Chasid and his Vizier were storks, and remained so.

Sadly the enchanted ones wandered through the fields, not knowing what to do in their misery. They could not discard their stork-plumage, nor could they return into the town and make themselves known, for who would have believed that a stork was the Caliph? and even if one had believed it, would the inhabitants of Bagdad accept a stork for a Caliph?

Thus they wandered about for several days, living miserably on the fruits of the field, which they could not swallow very well on account of their long beaks. As for lizards and frogs, their stomachs could not relish such food; besides, they were afraid of spoiling their appetite with such tit-bits. Their only pleasure in their sad situation was that they could fly, and thus they flew often to the high roofs of Bagdad to see what was going on in the town.

During the first days they remarked great uneasiness and grief in the streets. But on the fourth day of their enchantment, while sitting on the roof of the Caliph’s palace, they saw down in the street below a splendid array. The drums and fifes played; a man dressed in a gold-embroidered scarlet mantle rode a richly-caparisoned horse, surrounded by a gaudy train of servants. Half Bagdad rushed about him, and everybody shouted: ‘Hail, Mizra! the ruler of Bagdad!’

Then the two storks upon the roof of the palace looked at each other, and the Caliph Chasid said: ‘Dost thou guess now why I am enchanted, Grand Vizier? This Mizra is the son of my mortal enemy, the mighty Magician Kaschnur, who in an evil hour swore revenge on me. But still I do not despair. Come with me, thou faithful companion of my misery; we will betake ourselves to the grave of the Prophet; perhaps at that sacred shrine the magic may be dispelled.’

They rose from the roof of the palace and flew towards Medina.

They did not succeed very well in flying, for as yet they had had very little practice. ‘O Master!’ sighed the Grand Vizier after a couple of hours’ flight, ‘with your leave I can hold out no longer, you fly too swiftly for me! Besides, it is dark already, and we should do well to seek shelter for the night.’

Chasid listened to the request of his servant; and seeing beneath them in the valley some ruins which promised a lodging, they flew towards it. The place where they had settled for the night seemed formerly to have been a castle. Splendid pillars rose from among the ruins; several chambers which were still tolerably preserved testified to the bygone splendour of the building. Chasid and his companion strolled through the passages in search of some dry nook, when suddenly the stork Mansor stopped. ‘Lord and Master,’ he whispered below his breath, ‘is it not foolish for a Grand Vizier, and still more so for a stork to fear ghosts? Still, I feel very uneasy, for close by some one sighed and groaned quite distinctly.’ The Caliph now also stopped, and heard quite plainly a low sob, which seemed rather to come from a man than an animal. Full of anxiety, he wanted to go towards the spot whence proceeded the sound of sorrow; but the Vizier seized him by the wing with his beak and begged him not to rush upon new and unknown perils. But all was of no avail. The Caliph, who bore a brave heart beneath his stork plumage, tore himself away with the loss of some feathers, and ran towards a gloomy passage. Soon he came to a door which was ajar, and behind which he heard distinct sighs and moans. He pushed open the door with his beak, but stopped on the threshold in astonishment. In the ruined chamber, which was only dimly lighted by a little iron-barred window, he saw a great night-owl sitting on the ground. Heavy tears rolled out of its large round eyes, and with a hoarse voice it uttered its moans from its hooked beak. But when it saw the Caliph and his Vizier, who had come up in the meantime, it gave a loud cry of joy. Elegantly it wiped the tears from its eye with its brown-flecked wings, and to the great amazement of both, it cried in good human Arabic: ‘Welcome, ye storks; you are a good omen to me of my deliverance, for through storks I am to be lucky, as it was once foretold me.’

When the Caliph had recovered from his astonishment, he bowed with his long neck, set his thin legs in a graceful position, and said: ‘Night-owl! from thy words I believe that I see a fellow-sufferer. But alas! thy hope of deliverance through us is in vain. Thou wilt recognise our helplessness in hearing our tale.’ The night-owl begged him to relate it, and the Caliph commenced to relate what we already know.

When the Caliph had related his story to the owl she thanked him, and said: ‘Now also listen to my tale, and learn how I am no less unlucky than you are yourself. My father is the king of the Indies; I, his only unhappy daughter, am called Lusa. That Magician Kaschnur, who has enchanted you, has also brought misfortune upon me. One day he came to my father and asked me in marriage for his son Mizra. But my father, who is a fiery man, had him thrown downstairs. The wretch knew how to approach me again under another shape, and one day, while I was taking some refreshments in my garden, he administered to me, disguised as a slave, a draught, which changed me into this hideous shape. Fainting from fear, he brought me hither and shouted with a terrible voice into my ear: “Here shalt thou remain, detestable, abhorred even by beast, to thy end, or till one of free will, himself in this horrid form, asks thee to be his wife. And thus I revenge myself on thee and on thy haughty father.”

‘Since then many months have passed. Lonely and sadly I live as a recluse within these ruins, shunned by the world, a scarecrow even to beasts: beautiful nature is hidden from me, for I am blind by daylight, and only when the moon pours her wan light over these ruins does the obscuring veil drop from my eyes.’

When the owl had finished she again wiped her eyes with her wings, for the story of her woes had moved her to tears.

The Caliph, by the story of the Princess, was plunged into deep thought. ‘If I am not mistaken,’ said he, ‘there is between our misfortunes a secret connection; but where can I find the key to this riddle?’ The owl answered him: ‘O Master! such is also my belief; for once in my infancy a wise woman foretold that a stork should bring me a great fortune, and I know one way by which perhaps we may free ourselves.’ The Caliph was very much surprised, and asked what way she meant. ‘The enchanter who has made us both unhappy,’ said she, ‘comes once every month to these ruins. Not far from here is a hall where he holds orgies with numerous companions. Often have I spied them there. They then relate to one another their vile deeds. Perhaps he may pronounce the magic word which you have forgotten.’ ‘O dearest Princess,’ exclaimed the Caliph, ‘say when comes he, and where is the hall?’

The owl was silent a moment, and then said: ‘You must not take it ill, but only on one condition can I fulfil your wish.’ ‘Speak out, speak out,’ cried Chasid. ‘Command all, everything of me.’

‘It is this, that I may also become free, which can only be if one of you offer me his hand.’

The stork seemed somewhat taken aback at this proposition, and the Caliph beckoned to his servant to go out with him a little.

‘Grand Vizier,’ said the Caliph outside, ‘this is a sorry bargain, but you might take her.’ ‘Indeed!’ answered the Grand Vizier; ‘that my wife when I come home may scratch out my eyes? Besides, I am an old man, while you are still young and single, and could better give your hand to a young and fair Princess.’

‘That is just it,’ sighed the Caliph, whilst sadly drooping his wings. ‘Who then has told thee that she is young and fair? It is buying a pig in a poke.’

They consulted one with the other for a long time. At last when the Caliph saw that his Vizier would rather remain a stork than wed the owl, he resolved to fulfil the condition himself. The owl was immensely pleased. She confessed to them that they could not have come at a more favourable time, for the enchanters were very likely to assemble that night.

She quitted the chamber with the storks to lead them to the hall. They went a long way through a gloomy passage; at length, through a half-fallen wall, gleamed a bright light. Having arrived there, the owl advised them to remain perfectly quiet. They could, through the gap near which they stood, overlook a great hall. It was supported all round by pillars, and splendidly decked. Many brilliant coloured lamps replaced the light of day. In the centre of the hall was a round table, covered with many and choice meats. Round this table was a couch, on which sat eight men. In one of these men the stork recognised the pedlar who had sold them the magic powder. His neighbour asked him to relate his latest deeds. Amongst others he also related the story of the Caliph and his Vizier.

‘What sort of word hast thou given them?’ asked another enchanter. ‘A very difficult Latin one, namely, “Mutabor.”’

When the storks heard this at their hole in the wall they were nearly beside themselves with joy. They ran on their long legs so quickly to the threshold of the ruins that the owl could hardly follow them. There the Caliph addressed the owl with emotion: ‘Deliverer of my life and of the life of my friend, accept me in eternal gratitude for thy spouse for that which thou hast done for us.’ He then turned to the East. Thrice the storks bowed their long necks to the sun, which just then was rising behind the mountains. ‘Mutabor!’ they exclaimed; and straightway they were changed, and in the great joy of their new-sent life master and servant fell into each other’s arms laughing and crying. But who can describe their astonishment on turning round? A lovely lady, grandly dressed, stood before them. Smiling, she gave her hand to the Caliph. ‘Do you no longer recognise your night-owl?’ she said. It was she. The Caliph was so charmed with her beauty and grace that he exclaimed: ‘My greatest fortune was that of having been a stork.’

The three now travelled together towards Bagdad. The Caliph found in his clothes not only the box with the magic powder, but also his purse. He therefore bought in the nearest village what was needful for their journey, and so they soon came to the gates of Bagdad. There the arrival of the Caliph caused much surprise. People had believed him dead, and they therefore were highly pleased to have again their beloved ruler.

All the more, however, burned their hatred towards the impostor Mizra. They entered the palace, and took prisoner the old enchanter and his son. The Caliph sent the old man to the same chamber in the ruins that the Princess had lived in when an owl, and had him hanged there. To the son, who knew nothing of his father’s art, the Caliph gave the choice whether he would die or take snuff. And when he chose the latter, the Grand Vizier handed him the box. A good strong pinch and the magic word of the Caliph changed him into a stork. The Caliph had him shut up in an iron cage and placed in his garden.

Long and happy lived the Caliph Chasid with his wife the Princess. His most pleasant hours were always those when the Grand Vizier visited him during the afternoon, when they very frequently spoke of their stork adventures, and when the Caliph was very jovial he amused himself with imitating the Grand Vizier when he was a stork. He strutted up and down the chamber with stiff legs, clapped, fluttered his arms as though they were wings, and showed how vainly the latter had turned to the East crying all the while Mu—Mu. This entertainment was at all times a great pleasure to Madam Caliph and her children; but when the Caliph kept on clapping a little too long, and nodded, and cried Mu—Mu, then the Vizier threatened him, smiling, that he would communicate to Madam Caliph what had been discussed outside the door of the Night Owl Princess.