Zerendac
Palestine
There was once a poor woodcutter, who had a wife and three daughters dependent on him. One day, while he was working in the forest, a stranger passed that way and stopped to talk with him. Hearing he had three daughters the stranger persuaded him, for a large sum of money, which he paid on the spot, to let him have the eldest girl in marriage.

When the woodcutter went home at dusk, he boasted of the bargain to his wife, and next morning, took the girl to a certain cave and there gave her over to the stranger, who said that his name was Abu Freywar.

As soon as the woodman was gone, Abu Freywar said to her, “You must be hungry, eat these.”

So saying, he took a knife and cut off both his ears, which he gave to her together with a nasty-looking loaf of black bread.

The girl refusing such food, he hung her up by the hair from the ceiling of a chamber in the cave, which had meanwhile become a magnificent palace.

Next day, Abu Freywar went again to the forest and found the woodcutter. “I want your second daughter for my brother,” he said. “Here is the money. Bring her to the cave tomorrow.”

The woodcutter, delighted at his great good fortune, brought his second daughter to Abu Freywar, and directly he had gone, Abu Freywar gave the girl his ears, which had grown afresh, to eat. She said she was not hungry just then, but would keep them to eat by-and-by. When he went out of the room, she tried to deceive him by hiding his ears under a carpet on the floor.

When he returned and asked if she had eaten them, she said “Yes.”

But he called out, “Ears of mine, are you hot or cold? “and they answered promptly, “Cold as ice, and lying under the carpet.”

Whereupon Abu Freywar, in a rage hung her up beside her sister.

He then went and asked for the youngest daughter, whose name was Zerendac, saying, that he wanted her for another brother. But the girl, a spoilt child, refused to go unless she might take with her a pet kitten and a box in which she kept her treasures. Hugging those, she went with Abu Freywar to the cave.

She proved wiser than her sisters. When her husband’s back was turned, she gave his ears to the cat which devoured them eagerly, while she ate some food which she had brought from home.

When the ogre returned and cried as of wont, “Ears of mine, are you hot or cold?”

He received the answer, “As hot as can be in this snug little stomach,” and this pleased him so that from that time he began to grow very fond of Zerendac.

After she had lived some days with him, he said, “I must go on a journey. There are forty rooms in this palace. Here are the keys, with which you may open any door you please except that to which this golden key belongs,” and with that he took his departure.

Zerendac amused herself in his absence with opening and examining the locked- up rooms. On entering the thirty-ninth, she happened to look out of the window which opened on to a burial ground, and was terrified to see her husband, who was a ghoul, devouring a corpse that he had just dug out of a grave with his long claw- like nails. She was so fascinated with the sight that (hidden behind the window curtain), she watched him at his horrible repast. A few minutes later she saw him start and hide himself behind a monument in the cemetery. He had been disturbed by the approach of a funeral.

As the procession approached she heard one of the bearers say, “Let us be off as soon as possible, lest the ghoul which haunts this place get hold of us,” and she could see that the whole company seemed very anxious.

This discovery caused the girl great uneasiness. She was anxious to know what was in the fortieth room, and the discovery she had made as to the real character of her husband prompted her to solve the mystery at any cost. She took the golden key and opened the door. She found her two sisters still alive and dangling from the ceiling by their hair. She cut them down, fed them, and as soon as their health was restored, sent them back to her parents.

Abu Freywar returned next day, but not for long. He left home a few days later, telling his wife she might invite any of her relations whom she cared to see. Accordingly she invited many of her friends and relatives, who came to see her, but heard nothing of her troubles. It was well for her that she did not complain, for her visitors were not the persons they seemed to be, but simply her husband in various shapes assumed in order to entrap her.

He succeeded at last in the form of her grandmother to whom she was beginning to tell all her sorrows; when the old woman became Abu Freywar and, taking a poisoned nail, drove it into her breast. The wound did not kill her, but it caused her to swoon away. No sooner was she unconscious than the monster put her into a chest and sank it in the sea.

Now the son of the sultan of that land was fond of boating and fishing, and this prince happened to cast a large net from a boat close to the place where the chest in which she was lay at the bottom of the sea. The net, happening to enclose the chest, was hauled in with the greatest difficulty. The sultan’s son had it drawn into the boat, and, before opening it, said to his attendants, “If it contains money or jewels, you may have them all; but should it contain anything else, it is mine.”

He was greatly shocked when he saw its actual contents, and mourned the sad fate of that lovely girl. He had her body carried to his mother’s chamber, to be honorably prepared for burial. During the process, the nail being found and removed, Zerendac sneezed and came to life again.

She married the prince, and in course of time bore him a daughter. But one day, when she was alone with the child, the wall of her room suddenly split open, and Abu Freywar appeared. Without a word to the mother, he snatched up the infant and swallowed it, disappearing as suddenly as he had come. Zerendac was so bewildered by this fresh misfortune that, when asked where the baby had gone, she could only weep despairingly.

Her second child, a son, and the third, another daughter, were torn from her in the same horrible manner. On this last occasion, the cruel ogre smeared the poor mother’s face with her child’s blood. She washed it off, but, in her hurry and anguish, missed a slight stain beneath her under lip. Her husband and her mother-in-law, already very suspicious, judged of course that she was a ghoul and had devoured her offspring.

Zerendac told her story, but no one would believe it. Her husband, being loth to put her to death, ordered her to be imprisoned in a small underground chamber, and, at his mother’s suggestion, sought another bride. Hearing of the beauty of the daughter of a neighboring sultan, he went to ask for her. But before setting out he sent for the mother of his lost children, and asked her what she would like him to bring her when he came back. She asked for a box of aloes [Arabic sebr, also meaning "patience"], for a box of henna [the same word means "tenderness"], and a dagger.

Her request was granted, and when the prince returned from his betrothal to the sultan’s daughter, he brought with him these things for Zerendac. She opened the boxes, one by one, saying, “O box of sebr, you have not in you more patience than I have shown. O box of henna, you cannot be gentler than I have been,” and was just going to stab herself with the dagger, when the wall of her prison opened and Abu Frey war appeared, leading a handsome boy and two lovely girls.

“Live!” he cried, “I have not killed your children. Here they are.”

He then by his magic made a secret staircase connecting her dungeon with the great hall of the palace. Having done this, he seized the dagger and slew himself.

When the festivities in connection with the prince’s marriage began, Zerendac sent the three children, richly dressed in clothes which Abu Freywar had left with her, up the staircase, telling them to amuse themselves without respect for the guests or the furniture. Accordingly they did all the damage they could think of; but the mother of the prince was slow to punish them, because they were pretty, and reminded her of her son at their age.

But at last, losing patience, she was going to strike one of them when they all shouted at once, “Ya sitt Ubdûr, shun keyf el kamr btadûr,” which means, “O Lady Full-Moon, look how the moon is turning round.”

Everyone rushed to the window, and while their backs were turned the children vanished.

On the actual wedding day the children appeared again when their father was present, ran about, breaking china and glass, and did all the damage they could think of. The prince forbade them.

They replied haughtily, “This is our house, and everything here belongs to us and to our parents.”

“What do you mean by that?” inquired the prince.

The children answered by leading their father down the secret staircase to Zerendac, who explained who they really were and how they came there. The prince, greatly moved, embraced her tenderly and swore to be true to her till his life’s end.

The sultan’s daughter was returned, with excuses and a satisfactory present, to her father; and the prince and Zerendac lived happy ever after.

* Source: J. E. Hanauer, Folk-Lore of the Holy Land: Moslem, Christian, and Jewish (London: Duckworth and Company, 1907), pp. 221-28.

* Hanauer does not give this story a title.

* Return to the table of contents.

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