Jan D. Hodge

The Tale of the First Captain

Then Scheherazade told of a Sultan of Egypt who
especially loved and honored story tellers. He
called together his captains of police and bade
them each tell a story. Here is the tale told by
the first captain:

Having good reason to
savor my greatness (the
people bow meekly when-
ever I pass),
I take delight in my
feared as I am by each
son of an ass.

One day, patrolling, I
slipped up an alley and
sat by a wall for a
bit of a nap.
Suddenly (could it be
something fell heavily
into my lap.

Mercy! A purse with a
hundred dinars! I saw
no one about. With a
quick by-your-leave
asked of Allah and no
wherefores, I buried the
purse in my sleeve.

Next day, returning, I
slyly pretended to
sleep, surreptitiously
keeping close watch,
counting, you see, on the
odds of – but someone was
groping my crotch!

Startled, I seized what I
hardly expected, a
damsel’s bejewelled and
fairy-like hand.
‘Sweet one,’ I ventured, not
‘tell me your wish; I am
yours to command.’

‘Follow me, Captain, if
you wish an answer.’ She
led me up alleys I’d
never patrolled.
Thinking to please her, I
took out my zabb.° She said:
‘Won’t he catch cold?
°I trust no translation
is needed for this.
‘Put him away.’ ‘But if
he doesn’t tempt you, then
why did you give me the
purse, and behave
so unabashedly?’
smiling, she said, ‘It’s not
you that I crave.

‘I am a girl who is
madly in love with a
beautiful woman, as
she is with me.
Sadly, however, her
father the kadi° will
not let us be.
°an Islamic judge
‘He has forbidden our
promise of passion (that
gnarly old miser!), and
keeps us apart.
Help us inhabit that
joy which alone can bring
peace to my heart.’

Puzzled by this, I thought,
‘Girls will be boys?’ So I
tactfully asked (for I
wanted to know,
not being noted for
‘What kind of love has a
doe for a doe?’
At this point Scheherazade saw the approach
of morning and discreetly fell silent, but when
the nine-hundred-and-thirty-eighth night had
come, she continued with the girl’s words:

‘Love is a mystery
few can elucidate;
it is enough that you
help with my ruse.
Since it is legal, your
never in doubt; you have
nothing to lose.

‘Dressing tonight in my
finest array, I’ll a-
wait your patrol by the
kadi’s abode.
When they arrive, I’ll be
veiled, and pretend to be
lost in the road.

‘This is the story I’ll
tell to beguile them: that
I was out shopping and
stayed out too late,
which quite unsafely and
left me locked out at the
citadel gate.

‘Itching to help me, they’ll
ask you to summon the
kadi and tell him to
watch over me.’
‘Sweet one,’ as I again
called her, ‘your cleverness
wins you your plea.’

All went as planned, and the
kadi agreed that his
daughter could welcome her
in for the night.
I was still lost in im-
penetrability . . .
two gazelles romping in
wanton delight?

When I arrived at the
kadi’s next morning, a
fury accosted me,
shouting, ‘You louse!’
Why was I met with such
‘Scoundrel! You planted a
thief in my house!

‘Blessèd Allah, she has
stolen a belt with six
hundred dinars! It will
cost you your head!’
(He was a judge, and spoke
‘Give me but three days to
find her,’ I pled.

Though he agreed, I had
no way of finding her.
Downcast, I took to my
bed for three days.
Was such a robbery’s
destined to settle my
venial ways?

On my way back to the
kadi’s, I saw in a
window my sweet one, the
cause of my grief!
‘Wretch!’ I yelled up at her
‘why have you made me the
dog of a thief?’

Calling me up to her,
she reassured me, and
ushered me into a
fabulous room
bursting with rubies and
treasure. ‘Despite what you
seem to assume,

‘why would I steal? I made
off with the money in
hopes the old miser would
die of a stroke.
You needn’t fear; I’ve a
scheme to cast him as the
butt of the joke.

‘Go to the kadi and
tell him I never went
out of his house, but am
hidden away.
Though he will challenge the
of your hypothesis,
do as I say:

‘Search, and while doing so
go to the kitchen, and
there you’ll discover a
sinister sight –
my bloody clothing, a
horror. The kadi might
well die of fright,
°Cf. the "autobiography" of Davy Crockett [1833]: "the
people screamed all sorts o' frightened-to-death-ativeness."
‘and if he doesn’t, at
least he’ll do anything
just to keep secret what
happened to me.
Yet if Allah wills the
of this deception, then
so it shall be.’

‘If we succeed, will you
marry me, sweetest one,
so that my itch can be
roundly assuaged?’
Smiling, she cited its
‘Have you forgotten my
heart is engaged?’
At this point Scheherazade saw the approach
of morning and discreetly fell silent, but when
the nine-hundred-and-thirty-ninth night had
come, she continued:

When I returned to the
kadi and offered my
theory, he blithered some
feckless tirade
as with conspicuous
I toured his premises—
what a charade!

While I was searching, I
glimpsed her belovèd, and
knew how a rose might be
drawn to a rose.
Finally, shouting an
‘Ha!’ I uncovered the
bundle of clothes.

Swooning, the terrified
kadi paid dear for my
silence, and died soon there-
after, the cur.
Sweet one, I hear, lives in
bliss with her jonquil. My
blessing on her.

Adapted from The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, trans. Powys Mathers from the French of J. C. Mardrus [New York: St. Martins, 1972], IV, 340-50.

Frank treatment of erotic subjects occurs frequently in the original Thousand Nights and One Night. Much of the language here attempts to capture something of the flavor of the original, as in this passage: “As I looked at this incomparable child and heard what she said, my brain became clouded, and I exclaimed in my soul: ‘O Allah, Allah, girls will be boys! But what sort of love can there be between two women? Can a cucumber spring up in the night from a place devoted to quite other planting?’ I beat my hands together in surprise, and cried aloud: ‘Dear mistress, I understand nothing of what you have said. Therefore please explain the whole thing to me from the beginning, in all its details. Do does sigh after does, hens after hens?’ ‘Be quiet,’ answered the girl, ‘for this is a mystery of love and very few may understand it.’ ”

Later, as the Captain is searching the kadi’s house, “I saw that sweet gazelle [the kadi’s daughter], who was loved of her own kind, flit from chamber to chamber to escape us. ‘The name of Allah be upon her and about her!’ I murmured to myself. ‘A reed, a wavering reed! All elegance and all beauty! Blessed be the womb which bore her, and thrice glorified the Creator Who moulded her in the mould of perfection!’ I understood for the first time how such a girl might subjugate another of her like, and I murmured: ‘Sometimes the rose will lean toward the rose, the jonquil to the jonquil.’ ”

Jan D. Hodge has written Taking Shape (a collection of carmina figurata), The Bard Double-Dactyled (“The First Captain's Tale” is from a supplement to that volume), and Poems to be Traded for Baklava (the Onionhead Annual chapbook for 1997). His poems have appeared in North American Review, New Orleans Review, Iambs & Trochees, Defined Providence, South Coast Poetry Journal, Light, Umbrella, and many other print and online journals, and in the text/anthologies Western Wind, Writing Metrical Poetry, and the forthcoming edition of Turco’s The New Book of Forms.