The Pomegranate Prince: A Folk Tale of Bengal

1

ONCE there were a king and a queen who had a prince. The queen’s life was kept in a pair of dice, and the ogress who lived in the palm tree near the palace knew that. But the ogress could do nothing about it.

One day when the king was out hunting and the prince was playing dice with five friends, the ogress, disguised as a beggar woman, came to the prince and begged the pair of dice from him. The prince did not know the secret of the dice and he gave them to her without a thought. The ogress blew on the dice throe times and they flew away. Who knew where? In her room the queen fainted. The ogress hurried to her and gobbled her up. Then, disguised as the queen, she seated herself in her place.

The king came home at the usual hour that day. As on other days, the queen served him with the greatest care. Only the prince noticed that, while they were eating, a drop of saliva fell from his mother’s tongue. He shuddered. The prince could not eat any more and got up in silence. Nobody else knew.

Years passed, and the king had seven more sons. He celebrated the birth of each of the young princes. Only the eldest prince noticed how the top of the palm tree withered from day to day and no birds sat on it. The prince said nothing.

The seven sons grew up. The king duly performed the rites connected with their partaking of rice for the first time, the shaving of their heads, the initiation of the sacred thread, and so forth.

“Now let us travel abroad,” said the princes. “How can you go without the crown prince?” asked the king and informed his eldest son.

“Why have you forgotten me, your elder, my brothers? Come, let us set out together to visit strange lands,” said the crown prince and, mounted on a kingly winged horse, he joined the others.

The eight brothers, dressed befittingly, sallied forth from the palace with their companions.

From the roof terrace the ogress queen saw them go. What a calamity! The crown prince was going with them. She ran headlong to her room and opened a casket. In the casket was the Thread-conch snake. The ogress cast a spell: —

Thread-conch, Thread-conch, whose voice is like the conch shell,
Tell me today where the life of the prince is kept so well!

The snake was as slender as a thread but the sound of its voice was like a strong blast blown on a conch. Spreading its narrow hood it answered in this deep voice: —

Where is your life kept, O queen, and where mine indeed?
The life of the prince is in the pomegranate seed.

The queen bade the serpent:—

Beyond the borders of the realm of Death
Dwells the Lady of the Dice.
Bear this that I have written to her there.
For my seven sons seven maidens fair
I must have. Let not him get the dice
Who accompanies them.
Thread, stop my stepson’s breath!

And the serpent, leaning on the wind, flew away over the trees with the letter.

Then the ogress cast another spell: —

O Horse with wings, O royal-winged steed,
In the kingdom of the Lady of the Dice
On grass and water you will feed.

The ogress hurried up the thousand steps of the palace staircase anil stopped at the top, asking, “Staircase, to whom do you belong?”

The staircase answered:—

To him who goes up

Or him who goes down.

The ogress then said, “Split into two ilial this pomegranate seed may lie in the crack.” The pomegranate seed dropped beneath the thousandth step and was shut away in darkness there. The ogress, comforted, lay down on her milk-white bed and went to sleep.

The eight princes were in a distant forest when, with a clap, the eyes of the crown prince went blind. The prince cried out, “Brothers! A scorpion lias bitten me! I die!”

The sun went down. A rain storm came with the darkness. Nothing could be seen in the forest, nothing heard. The crown prince was left behind. The companions of the princes were dispersed. And the horses of the seven flew before the wind of the storm.

2

MEANWHILE the ogress dreamed: Thread-conch must have crossed the border of the land of death by now. But the snake had tired traveling all day over the trees. When night came it thought of rest. In a neat royal garden Thread-conch entered into a fruit on one of the trees, curled itself up comfortably, and went to sleep.

Now the princess of the country used to partake of the fruit of that very tree every day. The gardener brought it to her as usual. And as on other days the princess ate it. She swallowed the serpent and the letter of the ogress with the fruit.

What did the princes know of the letter or the message? Who knew the routes by which the winged horses flew? When the day dawned they saw that their eldest brother was not with them. They thought perhaps he had lagged behind. They drew up their horses and dropped the reins to wait for him.

No. The day passed and the night but their brother did not come. “What if he has gone on ahead?” asked one of them.

“That’s right !” they said and flew forward again.

Their horses were enchanted and carried them straight to the house of the Lady of the Dice. The Lady of the Dice was waiting, dressed in all her finery in her decorated chamber with flags flying at the gate. Any one who could defeat her at dice would be welcomed in wedlock by the Lady herself and her six sisters. “Who are you?” she asked the princes.

“We are princes of such-and-such a country, come on foreign travel,” they answered.

“Really!” she said. “ You look like ogres or their kin. Do you know of my vow?”

“We do not.”

“I have made this vow about the dice. If you are men you must play and I shall test you to see whether you are ogres or their kin.”

He who wins

Wins our wedding garland.

He who loses

Shall be our food!

The princes said, “Test us!”

The Lady of the Dice called for the letter. “If you are ogres or their kin you will have a message with you.”

“What letter?” asked the princes. “We have no message.”

“Then play.”

The princes lost the game of dice. The seven sisters cut up the seven princes, their seven horses and all, into small pieces and ate them noisily. After the meal they once more turned into beautiful women. Of what had the ogress queen dreamed and what had happened! Who can say if she felt it so far away?

Bearing the blind prince upon his back the kingly horse flew on and on through the dark and stormy night. Somewhere, somehow, the prince lost his grip on the reins and fell. His horse too fell upon a mountain and turned into stone.

There was a town where the prince fell. In the evening at the palace in this town thousands of drums and pipes of all kinds sounded. Torches were lighted in every home, on every tower, in every street. Flags were flown and there was festivity.

In the morning all was hushed. Then began weeping and lamentation. People beat their breasts in sorrow and cried out, dashing hither and thither. The country was flooded with tears, the kingdom submerged in grief.

And again, no sooner was it midday than the royal elephant came out in splendid trappings and the people, heaving a sigh of relief, went about their meals. Everybody in the town then came out and lined the streets.

The royal elephant went up and down, up and down, at last picking up some one and setting him upon the throne on his back. At once drums beat, conch shells sounded, trumpets blew. Guards, ministers, privy councilors, and soldiers accompanied the chosen man and made him king. He was married to the princess. Again there was merrymaking.

The next day only bones were found in the bedchamber of the princess. Of the king there was no trace. How many kings had come, how many gone! But a kingdom must have a king; so a king was crowned every day. The princess did not know and no one could understand what it was that devoured the kings.

The royal elephant was running through the town. “Make way! Make way!” shouts rang through the streets. “Stand in line!”

The prince had regained consciousness. He heard the noise and sat up. He did not know where he was or which way he ought to go; he was unable to understand what it was all about. Confused, he remained where he was.

The elephant passed the lines of people without touching any one. Speeding down the streets he caught up the prince and placed him on the throne. “The King! The King!” shouted the people. With shouts of triumph they crowned the blind prince their king.

At length the pomp of the coronation, the splendor of the various ceremonies, the courtly gatherings, the granting of audiences were all over and people slept in the land of A-King-A-Night. The town was silent. No guards stood at the doors. What was the use? Every one knew what would be found the next day. Watchmen no longer kept watch. The princess was deep in sleep.

Only the prince was awake that night of dread. There was not a sound in the palace or outside, the earth was hushed—not an insect nor a bird was stirring. A fatal sleep overlay the world that fatal night. In the room the lamp glowed and the prince’s heart throbbed. Not a sound broke the hush.

Suddenly the sleeping princess cried out and swooned. A flash of lightning broke through the room; the walls burst open. The frills of lace and gold were ripped from them. The prince was pricking with fear. Grasping the hilt of his sword firmly he got on his knees and demanded, “Who is it?”

He could see nothing, neither the light in the room, nor the flash of lightning, nor the princess as stiff as wood. And from the nose of the sleeping girl a thin hairlike serpent came coiling out. It thickened instantly to a thread . . . a string . . . a rope . . . an enormous python. And the python roared like a full blast blown on the conch shell.

The palace shook. The sword in the prince’s hand rattled. “I know not,” he cried, “who you are. Whatever you may be, devil or ogre, as I am a true prince, as I have not sinned, this sword which I whirl about me unseeing will strike you!”

No sooner said than done! The Thread-conch, flashing fire from its poison fangs and spreading its thirty-two hoods, swayed up at him and the prince’s sword, shattering the chandelier in the room with its clanging, descended upon the serpent’s hoods. And the prince saw— a snake! Lightning was playing about the room; smoke enveloped everything. The prince swung his sword about him. “I can see!" he cried. The python was severed in seven places. And that very night, in the palace of the ogress queen, the thousandth step on the staircase was burst asunder; the life of the prince rose up in a golden pomegranate tree with a thousand branches.

The king’s capital was shaken as by an earthquake — gurh-gurh, durh-durh! In terror the ogress became a mouse and ran squeaking away. The queen’s body again lay in a faint. From the city, from the kingdom, rose a wail of sorrow. What was this?

In the realm of A-King-A-Night people gathered as usual to lament their king. They saw — O Wonderful! Wonderful! They saw the King! The King was alive today! They could not contain themselves for joy. And they saw, lying on the floor, a many-hooded serpent cut in seven pieces. “How horrible!” They realized that it was this serpent which had devoured so many of their kings. “Burn it!” they cried.

When they put it into the fire they discovered the letter inside. The letter was brought to the king. He read it and turned to the princess. “Princess,” he said, “I cannot loiter here. I am afraid my seven brothers have been eaten by ogres. I must go.”

The people of the kingdom were sorry. “We have got a King at last only for him to leave us!” They kept watch for his return.

3

THE pomegranate prince traveled on and on and came to a mountain. As he climbed it he came upon his horse. No sooner did the prince touch him than the horse came alive and whinnied. “Come, let us go now,” said the prince.

Through the land of Death where the darkness strikes against one and stones fly on the wind the prince went undeterred. “What is the speed of the wind to him who rides a kingly winged steed!” Like an arrow of thunder sped the winged horse.

Farther on they came to the Cowrie-shell Mountain. The horse could not walk upon it. His hoofs slipped — chutchut, rutarut! “My bird!” said the prince. “Don’t stop! Speed on!” And like an arrow of thunder sped the horse. The mountain of cowries was ground to dust beneath his hoofs that night.

Then they came to the Bone Mountain. Beneath it flowed the turbulent waters of the river of blood, waves of blood, billows of blood, washing with a sound like kolokkol. Trunkless skulls showed their teeth, laughing, and bones rattled against bones — katakat, katakat. One had to close one’s ears. The prince said, “My bird! Don’t be afraid! Shut your eyes and speed on!” Beneath the horse’s hoofs the bones clattered — khat-khat-khatang, chharr-r-rchhat! They were beaten to husks.

The night came to an end and the prince saw, in the distance, the palace of the Lady of the Dice.

Flags flew at the gates and on the flags was written:—

To him who wins the game of dice
We, the seven sisters,
Shall give the marriage garland.

“I shall play,” shouted the prince.

AN hen he sat down to the game the prince was surprised to see that the dice were his own. He played and lost but he noticed a mouse came and turned the dice over. The prince grew thoughtful.

The Lady of the Dice said, “Well, prince, play again!”

“Take my horse for today,” answered the prince. “I’ll play tomorrow.” He got up and the horse was eaten by the sisters.

The next day the prince went to a village and brought back a kitten. He sat down to play and said, “Come, begin the game.”

So they sat and played. The mouse came and tried to approach the dice again and again but the sight of something seemed to frighten her back.

The prince took the dice: —
Back to the hand which owns you
Have you come at last, O Dice.
Where have you been so long?
Eating whose milk and rice?

The prince threw the dice. In a twinkle the Lady lost the game. “Give me back my horse,”said the prince. The Lady brought the horse.

They began to play again. The Lady lost a second time. The prince said, “Give me a horse like my horse, a prince like myself.”

The Lady brought a prince and a horse. He recognized his brother and his brother’s horse. They played again and one by one the prince won his seven brothers, their seven horses, the land, estates, palace, and everything that belonged to the Lady of the Dice. At last he demanded the mouse and the pair of dice. But the Lady would not part with them easily. The prince released the kitten and the kitten tore the mouse to pieces. The lamps in the room went out. Where was the palace, the kingdom, and all the splendor? The prince still held the dice in his hand. The seven sisters had changed into seven worms and he saw them lying there, dead.

“Prince!” said the dice. “ Let us go home!”

The eight brothers sped homewards on their eight winged horses.

The queen sat up in the royal palace. “How long I have slept!” she said. “Where is the prince?”

Where is the prince? The drums of victory had begun to beat. The dust of the road darkened the day. The eight princes, riding in formation on eight winged horses, were coming home. The crown prince dismounted and cried, “Where is my mother? Where is mother?” The eight princes gathered round her and bowed at her feet. In the empty palace there was once more rejoicing.

“Our king set forth in search of his brothers long ago,” said the people of the A-King-A -Night country as they sought him far and wide. “He was our only living king. And he has not yet come back,” they said. “Here is our king!” they cried when they saw him. Then the princess moved the capital of her country to the country of her husband.

The old king knew not what to make of it all.

Early the next day the golden pomegranate tree burst into flower. And at midday the palm tree near the palace, for no reason at all, split and fell, tearing up its roots!