The Storyteller and the Flea and the Princess and the Djinn

This story is paired with “The Story of King Shahrayar and Shahrazad” from 1001 Arabian Nights. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free. 

There once was in Al-Qahira a poor storyteller, Aban bin Qusay. He told his stories on squares and streets, in coffee shops and markets, in all the places where people came and were willing to donate money for stories about wizards and caliphs, djinns, sayings of the Prophet,  long journeys and whatnot.

And with each of those stories Aban bin Qusay had a secret listener. Hidden in his clothes was a flea. This flea did not bite, she tickled not, she did nothing of those things normal fleas used to do. She listened. For every story that came out Aban storyteller’s mouth, the flea listened intently.

*   *   *

“Are you already listening to that guy?” Nervig asked as he came in with two mugs of coffee.

“Shh, he’s almost ready.” Jill closed her eyes to hear the story better. Of course, she could just record it all, but she wanted to hear the stories as soon as they were told, live. Nonsense, of course. Aban was already more than a thousand years dead. But for Jill it was as if he lived. And in a way that was true. Within Temporal Studies (specializing in 11th century Arabia) she was a purist. She did not jump back and forth on the time lines. No, Jill followed the line entirely chronological. With serious studies that was often difficult, but in her private projects she stuck to this principle. And Aban bin Qusay was her most beloved private project.

*   *   *

The years came and went. Aban bin Qusay lived his life and told his stories. Of all the storytellers of Al-Qahira, he was considered one of the best. Nobody told the great deeds from the past as passionate as Aban, no one could tell more miraculous stories as he did. It brought money in his hands and bread in the mouths of him and his family. It was never much money, or a lot of bread, but it was enough. Aban lived and told his stories.

The flea kept listening and watching. Year in, year out. She never bit him.

In a fairy tale, the flea would have told Aban the hiding place of a secret treasure, one with a lamp with a djinn, or one that made him rich enough to marry a princess, or more so. History, however, was not a fairy tale. No secret treasures, no lamp with a djinn, no almond eyed princesses who married poor storytellers.

Only a listening and watching flea that never bit.

*   *   *

Jill was crying. Aban was dying. Nearly fifty years was very old in the Arabia of the 11st century. Now it was nothing, an instant. People died no longer if they did not want to. That made the death of Aban so much harder. And that while Aban was already dead for many centuries.

With red eyes Jill stared at the old man lying in his deathbed and fought for breath. She saw everything, heard everything, smelled everything, felt everything. The data wire was large enough for all the input that she wanted and a billion times more. There was no limit.

Could people travel to the past? Absolutely, but only so long as they do not disturb the past. To observe was possible and to be observed, as long as history was not altered: someone who appeared on a deserted mountain and eventually departed without leaving a trace was possible, or an artificial flea that was ignored by all was possible. Someone who suddenly appeared out of nowhere at the bedside of a dying storyteller was technically impossible. Equally impossible as to have a dying storyteller disappear from his deathbed, or spraying the dying man full of super drugs by, for example, an artificial flea.

Aban would die, it was history, there was nothing Jill could do to prevent that.

*   *   *

The flea crawled into the ear of Aban bin Qusay, the storyteller who was on the verge of death. And for the first time ever the flea bit Aban. He felt nothing, he was dying.

“Aban,” said the flea. She did so with a voice in his head. It had to do with super thin tentacles into the mouth of the flea that firmly knotted at the ends of nerve … Ah, it was just magic.

The flea sounded like a young woman.

“Yes?” Asked Aban surprised. Was he already dead? Had he reached paradise? He still felt his old body, and saw the same hazy darkness as before.

“You’re not dead,” said the flea who could read minds, magically. “But you will die soon, Aban. Your body will die, but you yourself can live …”

*   *   *

Death was death, but it was not difficult to create lifelike simulations (virtual they once called it). Especially if you had already captured a large part of the life of the person. And certainly not when all his thoughts, all his memories could be read and loaded.

There was no limit on the data wires.

*   *   *

There once was a princess in a distant land with a djinn, a creature without a soul.

Every night the djinn told her a story, just as he had done during his life.

There were no fleas.


Jaap Boekestein (1968) is an award winning Dutch writer of science fiction, fantasy, horror, thrillers and whatever takes his fancy. Five novels and almost three hundred of his stories have been published. His has made his living as a bouncer, working for a detective agency and as editor.