In his old age, Sindibad Al-Bahri, known simply to friends as Sindibad, was wealthy and comfortable in the city of Baghdad. Gray, wrinkled, and racked by many a weakening bone, Sindibad had retired from a life of sailing and adventure. The open seas were not his environment anymore, a world of mermaids, monsters, and demons long forgotten. His mansion possessed treasures from his travels, many a gem, a grimoire, and monster limb from cold subterranean caverns and faraway lands, but the artifacts were all mere reminders of his previous life.
One evening, a traveling merchant came to Sindibad’s door, showcasing a cart with many expensive wares.
“I can tell that you are a man of great tastes,” said the merchant, “for your home is quite vast in structure, opulent, and beautiful. Your garden is filled with many precious flowers, and your clothing is of such fine silk. Ah! Even your skin is scented with the finest of oils, sir, and,” the merchant took a peek inside of Sindibad’s house, “you have such fine furniture and collectables! Where you by chance a merchant in your younger years?”
Sindibad smiled politely, though he was never quite fond of flattery. The roughness of his sea days still influenced his steady temperament, and he was always quite blunt in conversation. “I was a sailor. Merchant, no, though my wealth was derived from my travels. I didn’t become rich by mere luck alone.”
“Ah, I see. Well, sir, I would hope that you look at my wares and consider whether I have something that would be worth adding to your possessions. I’m sure I have many things you would love and enjoy, antiques that would suit your fancy.”
“Perhaps,” Sindibad said. “I am a bit curious as to what you have to offer, though I’m more concerned about you, dear sir. You look tired, as if you’ve been selling your wares all day. Come inside, and bring your cart with you, since it’s small enough to fit through the door. Let me get you something to drink and we can talk in my den.”
“Oh, thank you, kind sir! You are most merciful and benevolent! I am very tired, and I’ve been wandering all over Baghdad. Most men have merely turned me away from their door, shaking their fists at me and yelling insults to my face, but you are very generous.”
Sindibad chuckled. “The men of Baghdad, especially the wealthy, are very cautious when men come to their door with honey dipped words and items to sell. Perhaps I can give you advice on how to be a better businessman as well.”
Patting the peddler on the back, Sindibad walked the man into his den. A servant was called to make tea and to bring water. Sweet dates and fruit were also provided.
As Sindibad and his guest sat in the den, they discussed a number of topics, ranging from city politics and the unfortunate death of the fifth Abbasid Caliph, Harun Al-Rashid, to travels. Sindibad was impressed that the peddler had done a bit of traveling as well, though not as expansive as the retired sailor’s own voyages. From the sandy stretches of Egypt back to his home city of Baghdad, the peddler gathered a variety of different items, barter and selling his way through life.
The peddler introduced himself as Ibrahim Zaman. Born amongst Baghdad thieves living in a shared den, Ibraham was skilled in the arts of common street criminality. At fifteen, Ibrahim turned his life around when his father, rendered handless for pickpocketing, went to prison. The last Ibrahim had heard, his father died in a wretched jail cell, the same year Ibrahim’s mother was murdered by fellow thieves in their den. Ibrahim left his street origins behind him and decided to travel the world, which led him to selling stolen items for coins. Soon, he was able to sell and barter without stealing, amassing a hefty number of products by dealing with rich men from all over Arabia and the northeastern tip of Africa.
Sindibad was quite humored by Ibrahim’s past. “To think I let a thief enter my abode.”
“I assure you, friend, my past is well behind me! I haven’t stolen a thing in nineteen years. At thirty-seven, I am wise and law abiding. I wouldn’t wish to steal from any man, let alone my customers.”
“Potential customers.” Sindibad smirked. “I’m still deciding whether I want to see what you have available for sale yet.”
“Understandable, sir. Well, here we’ve been talking and sharing our opinions on so many subjects. I’ve given my name, but I feel foolish coming into your home and not even knowing who you are.”
“Sindibad Al-Bahri is my name, sir. A retired sailor enjoying my last days in Baghdad.”
The seller’s mouth dropped. “Praise god. You’re a legend, sir! The famed Sindibad the Sailor!”
“Yes. I’m honored that my reputation proceeds me in such a way, but it still feels awkward to be known by so many people for something as simple as sailing.”
“As simple as sailing? Dear sir, you are known for your adventures! Forgive me if they are widely exaggerated, but you were said to have fought monsters and demons, ghouls in abandoned towns. You’re as heroic as the Greek hero Odysseus is said to be.”
“Heroic nothing, friend. I am merely lucky to have made it to my feeble old age. I deserve no praise.”
“Oh, Sindibad, sir, you are much too modest for your own good.”
“Again with your honeyed words. Most likely a remnant of your thievery days than your years of traveling. Your journeys should have humbled you, friend. I’m sure the tales you’ve heard have truly been blown out of proportion, though I have gone through hell and back to become the man I am now. By the grace of Allah, the merciful, and compassionate, I have lived a good and prosperous life. I survived perils that many of my comrades were not fortunate enough to escape. Now, I enjoy the treasures Allah has blessed me with. Sailing on the wild seas, I would have never imagined that I would one day retire, surrounded by opulence and beauty. I only wish to live my final days as a pious man, and rejoice.”
Ibrahim nodded as he glanced around Sindibad’s abode once more, a bit nervous by the old man’s tone, which had seemed more scolding than modest. “Well, you do have many priceless antiques here, sir.”
“Which brings me to ask, what do you have to sell to an old man that will make my last moments better?”
“Well… let’s see here, shall we?” The peddler’s shaking fingers pulled his cart close, between him and the retired sailor. He started to reach for whatever would come first. “This is a beautiful statuette I purchased from the streets of Giza-”
“Blasphemous. What else do you have?”
“Well, um, er… then, I have this lovely lamp from the tomb of the great Pharaoh-”
“A stolen item from the tomb of an old king? Preposterous! As if I need some haunted antique once held by a polytheistic worshipper of outdated fragmented fantasies. What else?”
“Well, there. Would you look at this? This is a rug I got from-”
“Insulting. You dare to sell me some old rug you possibly got from the floor of a tavern? Unroll that slab of garbage. Why, look there. You can still see footprints on it! And it smells! Just what do you take me for, sir? I let you into my house, and most of what you have here is either junk or fancy crafts with much ado about nothing! Will you look at my house? Look at that scimitar hanging on a wall over there. I got that from fighting a crazed pack of highwaymen with my bare hands near the Red Sea! This large silver dish, on the coffee table before you. Where do you think I got that? Why do you think it’s banged up with so many dents? That dish is the only thing that kept me alive when an ogre smashed blow after blow down upon the wretched thing, aiming towards my head as I fled for my life on some mysterious island. I’m sure you’ve heard that story. Sailors still haven’t mapped out where that island was, and I was lucky to escape. I was lucky to make it back to the shore of Arabia years later. Many terrifying tribulations before and after that mere adventure, sir. Vile sharks, deadly rattlesnakes in temples, abandoned by pagan tribes years ago. That spear over there was nearly buried into my neck before I ripped it from my assailant’s hand. You see that old dusty scroll on the wall? I had to decipher the formula written on it in order to escape a prison this treacherous witch placed me in. She kept the scroll inside of my cell as if to mock me, assuming I knew nothing about magic! You’ll be surprised by the things I’ve learned on my journeys, Ibrahim, and the hell I’ve gone through.”
Ibrahim shook his head with disgust. “Sindibad the legendary sailor. How ignorant you are to look down upon me, all while exalting yourself. Where is the humility you preached about? You look down upon me for growing up as a thief, doing what I had to do to survive, all while you brag about items you stole.”
“Stole? I fought for these items! Everything you see before you, I fought for?”
“Yes. You fought a pack of thieves near the Red Sea, and stole their sword. You defeated a spearman and stole his spear. You escaped a witch’s prison she made for you, and stole her scroll. Tell me, Sindibad, sir, did you by chance kill all of these enemies of yours?”
The retired sailor leaned back in his chair. The fire in his eyes dimmed, his intensity slowly fading. “Yes.”
“So not only are you a thief, but you are a murderer. Then, you condemn me for my past, and my present, when I have honored and praised you for yours. You scold me for complimenting you with ‘honeyed words,’ while you berate me with venomous ones. From the streets of Baghdad to the shores of Africa, I’ve heard people call you a hero! I’ve heard of your many expeditions, perhaps some of them false, many true, I’m sure. They are stories of bravery and courage. Never did I think negatively of you for killing when you felt it just or necessary to survive, or call you a burglar for taking the possessions of your enemies, until today. You placed me under your feet, Sindibad, one of the many who idolize and respect you in the streets. Children starving recite your name daily, hoping to follow your example. Homeless men write poems of your glory. We do what we must to survive, from picking pockets to fighting off the ruffians that abuse us. Did you not come from humble beginnings?”
Sindibad sighed, his expression one of abashment. “No. My father was a rich man. I had spent his savings after he died, and had to make a new name for myself in order to gain wealth back.”
“Yes. As the legends say. So you became a sailor, and remade yourself as a new, wealthy man. Congratulations, sir. In your humility and piousness, here in your lofty mansion, I would hope you one day learn to respect us. The people of the streets of Baghdad, who toil day and night, while resisting the urge to hop over your fences and make a name for ourselves. You need not admire or envy us, as we do you, but mutual respect for those who fight to live as you fought to live in your multitude of quests would be so appreciated.” Ibrahim stood from his seat. “Thank you for inviting me into your home, Sindibad. You were kinder to me on first impression, when I compare you to many another man I’ve met in my travels. Unfortunately, I find you just as self-centered and judgmental as the other rich men I’ve met in my travels. Allow me to burden you with my inferiority no longer.”
Ibrahim took his cart by the wooden handles and began to push it in front of him.
The peddler stopped, turning to face the old man. “Yes?”
Sindibad’s lip trembled. “Forgive me. I am sorry for accepting you so poorly into my home, and treating you like a tyrant. Allow me to make it up to you. How much does that lamp cost?”
“It’s priceless, kind sir. Thank you for your time.”
Sindibad placed his hand on the peddler’s shoulder before Ibrahim continued to walk away.
“What will you tell men,” Sindibad said, “of your meeting with me?”
“I will say nothing of this day, Sindibad. I will continue to live as I always have, fighting another day, and enjoy the tales I hear of you and the other heroes that cloud our imaginations in Arabia. Why ruin other people’s dreams for one brief, unpleasant encounter in my waking life?”
As Ibrahim left the old man behind, Sindibad watched him push that wooden cart down the cobblestone aisle leading to his mansion, past the gardens surrounding it, and beyond the gate. The peddler was back on the streets, wheeling his treasures to whatever wealthy house awaited him, as the retired sailor stayed home with his souvenirs and servants, safe from the outside world.
* * *
On a hot, humid day, a young Baghdad porter walked from the market. His legs were tired, his feet sore, as sweat poured from his forehead.
Outside of the gates of a beautiful mansion, the porter could hear melodious music and smell delicious foods. His senses were enticed, and he couldn’t bear the thought of continuing past the mansion. Luckily, he found a bench to sit on, under the shade of a tree stretched over the gate. How relieved the porter was to find a place to sit, to relax and make himself comfortable, but he could never say happiness came to him. His life had been one of pain, torture, and immense agony.
Thinking himself alone, the porter cried out to God, wondering why he had to endure a life of pain, anguish, and suffering. He let out his confusion on the condition of the poor and hungry, why they were cursed to toil all of their lives, only to gain nothing.
The young man’s cries were heard by the owner of the mansion, an old and wealthy man. The rich man looked to the window, noticing that one of his servants had gone to talk to the ranting porter. Taking pity on the porter, the old man stood at the front of his mansion’s door, stopping the servant when he came back.
“Mahmoud,” called the rich man. “Who is that young man, and why is he ranting to God outside my gates? I heard his words and I can’t help but take pity on him.
“You won’t believe it, sir,” Mahmoud the servant replied, “he said his name is Sindibad, and I quickly told him that the famous Sindibad the sailor lives here!”
“This young man has my name as well? Send for him!”
Mahmoud quickly went back to the gate and invited the young porter into the home. Accepting the invitation, the impoverished Sindibad made his way into the house, astonished to meet the famed sailor, Sindibad himself.
The retired sailor asked the young man to share his concerns that he expressed outside the gates of his mansion. Complying, young Sindibad discussed his worries, his plights and fears as a poor man in Baghdad, unable to escape his horrible fate.
“It saddens me that the people of Baghdad suffer as you do, young man.” The older Sindibad patted the young man on his back. “I can be blinded to that reality, living here in my mansion, and relieved of my own plights. I only hope that, in some way, I can help you move on from your painful present. Come sit in my den, sir. Allow me to share how I gained my wealth, and how I became the man I am today.”
Brian Barr is an American author of novels, short stories, and comic books. Brian has been published in various short story anthologies, including Queer Sci Fi’s Discovery, NonBinary Review No. 3: The Wizard of Oz, Dark Chapter Press’s Kill for a Copy, and various short story collections. Brian collaborates with another writer, Chuck Amadori, on the supernatural dark fantasy noir comic book series Empress, along with Pencil Blue Studios’ Marcelo Salaza for the art. His first two novels, Carolina Daemonic and Psychological Revenge, were published by J. Ellington Ashton Press in 2015.