There was being and nonbeing, there was none but God. In the old, old times, there was a king, guardian of the throne of wisdom. This king’s only child was a beautiful daughter, as fair a girl as had ever walked the earth. Her hair was as dark as the sky at midnight, framing a face as golden as a harvest moon. Her eyes were deep and black and warm, shimmering in their depths like coffee. Her form was–well, suffice to say that she turned heads.
In the fullness of time, the princess came of age and was to be wed to ensure the succession of the throne. But who, the king wondered, could be worthy of such a rare and precious flower? This was a matter of great concern to him, and he gave it considerable thought. A worthy man, he decided, would be a man of great riches, to adorn the princess with finery befitting her stature. A worthy man would be bold–after all, it takes confidence to hold the throne. And finally, a worthy man would be wise: ruling a country was not an easy task, to say nothing of the difficulty of ruling a wife!
It would be a difficult task, to find a man who was all three of those things. Certainly he could not search for such a suitor himself–he was a busy man, and he would hate to squander his daughter’s most fruitful years searching for an appropriate match. But the king was a clever man, so he thought, and at length he arrived at a solution.
He would bring all of the eligible suitors to him! After all, his daughter’s beauty was well known throughout the land and the lands that his merchants traded with. He would host a contest: each suitor would bring a gift befitting the princess. She would select her favorite from among them–whoever’s gift was selected would be a fine husband for his lovely daughter! The king was delighted with his solution. The gift the suitor brought would speak to the suitor’s riches. He would be bold to show up before the princess at all. And finally, his wisdom would be apparent in how well the gift suited the princess–surely her favorite gift would come from the wisest man of all!
And so it was to be done. The king dispatched messangers to the four winds and news of the competition spread. Princes, sultans, wealthy merchants and generals sifted through their stores of wealth, seeking that one perfect gift to present to the princess. Goldsmiths and jewelers throughout many lands were commissioned to devise clever trinkets and beautiful sculptures. Each came to the royal city, confident that his gift was the most worthy, that he would be chosen by the princess, that he would someday be king.
On the day of the contest the line of men stretched from the foot of the throne, out of the throne room, through the palace, across the palace grounds and all the way out the gate into the city. Some of the suitors carried their own gifts, glittering in their arms, while others were flanked by a servant struggling under the weight of the riches to present to the princess. The wealthiest among them were themselves carried by servants.
At long last the contest began.
The first suitor presented a griffin, intricately feathered in silver and gold. It was so lifelike one could swear it breathed. Only a creature that magnificent, the suitor said, could match the contenance of someone so beautiful.
The second suitor offered a jeweled box that played the music of the angels. Such was the beauty of the music that not an eye was dry when the suitor closed the box, ending its tune. The third suitor brought a robe from the far east woven out of rainbows. The fourth, a bird whose tears cured all wounds. And so on, and so on, one after the other. The tables beside the princess groaned under the weight of all of the gifts as the piles of riches grew ever higher.
And then came the last suitor. He was no prince, no sultan. He was not a wealthy merchant, outfitted in fine fabrics. Nor was he a great general, with many battles to his credit. He was a cook in the palace kitchens, and had watched the princess from afar for many years. Samir, for that was his name, so admired her that he had come, with all of these fine suitors who ridiculed his clothing and his standing, to present her with his gift.
From his bag he pulled a unadorned ceramic box, which he opened slowly to reveal a pastry. A most incredible savory smell filled the hall. Every stomach in the hall grumbled in response. He lifted the pastry from the box, and began to speak.
“This pastry,” he said, “Is as beautiful as you are. It is adorned with black sesame seeds, as rare and lustrious as your hair and eyes. Its shell is as golden as the harvest moon, a testament to your fair face.”
“However,” Samir continued, “It is what is inside the pastry that is the most wonderful thing. Clearly it must be delightful, for the smell is so enticing. It is a small mystery, a little magic, a mirror to the vast the mystery of your heart.” With that, he laid the pastry in the princess’s outstretched hand.
Now, the princess had grown up being showered with riches, attention, and praise. Her every whim was catered to immediately, if not faster. As one might imagine, this had turned her into something of a wretched, spoiled monster.
“How DARE you?!” She shrieked. “How dare YOU come before ME with such a paltry excuse for a gift! This is street food–no, lower than street food! Unfit even for swine!” She hurled the pastry at the floor, sending the coal black sesame seeds skittering scattering across the marble.
“Guards! Imprison him at once!”
The royal guard rushed up and seized poor Samir, who was staring at the ruined pastry with tears in his eyes. They drug him down, down, down, down, deep into the palace dungeons, where the door locked with a clunk behind him.
The princess, for her part, was hysterical. It took several hours of soothing praises and entertainment to calm her enough to choose a gift. She selected a jeweled mirror, and spent the rest of the evening admiring herself in it. But it is not with her that our interests lie. It is with poor Samir.
Samir lay at the bottom of a deep cell, staring up at the walls, which seemed to continue forever. Dimly, dimly, he could see light flickering in through the single tiny window, high above. His only companionship was his sorrow, and his bag of pastries. He wept bitterly for the loss of his princess–for she was not who he thought she was–and for his poor fortune. He felt sure that they would soon kill him–which might be a mercy in comparison to starving to death in the dank dungeon. He resolved to ration his pastries to ensure that they lasted as long as possible.
So absorbed was he in his misery that he didn’t notice his cell mate until it let out a high, keening wail. It was a sound of such desolation and despair that Samir felt his heart would shatter on the spot.
“Who’s there?” he enquired into the gloom. “What’s the matter?”
Something shifted in the darkness, and from the sounds of it, the something was very large. Samir was suddenly worried that he would be eaten. Because that was all this day really needed. Lose a princess, lose your freedom, get eaten by a monster in a dungeon. Great. The beast stepped into the flickering, shifting light drifting down from high, high above.
It had the head face of a dog, with great golden paws like a lion. His back and wings were feathered in brilliant golds and reds. It was a juvenille simorgh, one of the young of the beast that guards the tree of all seeds.
The beast wailed once again, big, sloppy tears splashing onto the stone below. Plop, plop, sploosh!
“I am t-t-trapped here, and I will n-n-never see my m-m-mother again,” the creature wailed. “I’m so h-h-hungry and cold and m-m-miserable and I m-m-miss my m-m-mother!”
The simorgh broke down into indescipherable sobs once again.
Samir looked at the poor creature and his heart broke for the second time that day.
“I have some food,” Samir offered. “It is nothing much, surely nothing befitting a beast of your magnificence, but I will share what I have.”
The simorgh sniffled and peered hopefully through the shadows at Samir. Samir opened his bag, revealing its contents of hot pastries, dusted with black sesame seeds. He pushed it toward the simorgh.
The simorgh took a questioning sniff, and clawed a pastry from the bag. He looked at it and burst into dejected sobs again.
Samir was a trifle put off–he bad made those, and he didn’t think they warranted that kind of reaction, though perhaps the princess would disagree.
“I’m s-s-sorry, ” the simorgh sobbed. “It s-s-smells so g-g-good, but I’m a-a-allergic to s-s-sesame seeds.”
Samir picked up the pastry, and began pluck, pluck, plucking the little black seeds off of the golden shell.
He finished plucking the thousands of black seeds off the first pastry and laid it in front of the miserable simorgh. Then he picked up a second pastry, and began pluck, pluck, plucking off the seeds the color of the princess’s heart.
While Samir plucked every sesame seed off of every pastry that he had, the simorgh told Samir his story, first between sobs, but soon between mouthfuls of pastry. The simorgh was named Samosa. The king had captured him as the first step in a plan to gain control over the tree of all seeds, which Samosa’s mother guards. The king knew that if he controlled the tree of all seeds, he controlled all of the agriculture and food production, and would be the most powerful ruler in all of the world. He was starving Samosa in order to keep him too weak to escape.
But as Samosa munched his way through Samir’s bag of pastries, his strength began to return. As he ate the last one, he was strong enough to fly through the window at the top of their dungeon–but not strong enough to take Samir with him.
“Friend,” he said to Samir, “Do not despair. You saved me, and though I cannot save you now, I will not leave you here. I will see to your rescue.” With that, he flew up, up, up, up, up and crashed through the window at the top of the dungeon, leaving Samir alone once more.
As Samosa crept through the palace grounds, attempting to avoid recapture, he overheard two of the scullery maids gossiping.
“Did you hear about Samir?” one of the maids said to the other. “He was thrown into the dungeon for offending the princess! I hear she’s going to have him executed in four days, on the morning of the wedding feast.”
“Poor Esther,” the other girl replied. “She’s loved him for ages, and now she’ll never get to tell him. I hear she’s been weeping in her quarters all day.”
This gave Samosa the beginnings of an idea. As soon as he was free of the palace grounds, he flew home to his mother and explained to her his plan.
Later that evening, in the servants quarters at the palace, someone was calling for Esther. She stopped crying for a moment.
“Esther. Esther, do not despair. You can yet save your love. He has returned to me something precious that I thought had been lost forever. Do as I say and you will have everything you need to save Samir and escape together.”
“Go into the kitchen and make three baskets full of the pastries that Samir made for the princess. Then, take one basket into the center of the city and distribute all but one pastry to the hungry. The last pastry is yours–break it open and inside you will find something to aid you in rescuing your love. Do this for three nights. On the third night, wait until you hear commotion inside the palace, and go free Samir and make your escape.”
Esther did as she was told. The first night, after she had distributed all save one of the pastries, she returned to her quarters and broke the last pastry in half. Inside was a tiny rope. When she freed it from the pastry, it grew and grew and grew until it was long enough to reach the bottom of the dungeon.
The second night, after distributing all of the pastries except one, the pastry revealed a small flask of the water of life.
The third night, Esther was too anxious to return to her quarters to open the pastry. Instead, she opened it in the very spot she stood distributing the other pastries to the hungry.
It was empty.
Esther nearly died from despair. Hadn’t she done as she was instructed? Hadn’t she been promised that she could yet save her love? Was it all for nothing? Would he be executed tomorrow after all? She put the halves of the pastry back into the basket and prepared herself for her last night in the same world as that of Samir.
At that moment, an old, old man shuffled up.
“Are you still feeding the hungry, daughter?” he asked her.
She looked at him with eyes filled with sadness. “I have but one pastry left, grandfather. It is no good to anyone but someone who needs to fill his stomach.” She handed the broken pastry to the old man.
“I am someone who needs to fill his stomach,” the old man laughed and took a bite. “It is a great kindness you do me, daughter. I am alone in this world, now. I have no family, no one to shepherd my business, no one to look after me in my old age. Did you cook this?”
“Yes,” Esther replied bitterly, “using my love’s recipe.”
“Then you and your love must be great cooks indeed! I could use one such as you to care for myself and my restaurant, as I can no longer do so.”
Esther swallowed her tears and stared at the bottom of her basket. Perhaps leaving the palace wouldn’t be such a bad idea–it would be filled with loneliness with Samir dea– with Samir gone.
“Well, if you decide to accept my offer, I am staying at the All Seeds Inn on the outskirts of town, until I run out of the little gold I have.” And with that, the old man shuffled off into the gathering darkness.
As Esther trudged slowly home with an empty basket and a heavy heart, she contemplated the gifts from the pastries. She had a rope that could reach the bottom of the dungeon from the tiny window. She had a vial of the water of life, to heal any of Samir’s injuries. And now, she realized, she also had an escape plan. She broke into a run at the palace gates, just as the first shouts and the clanging of steel escaped from the banquet hall.
Esther tore through her quarters, grabbed the rope and the water of life and ran towards the dungeon.
It was unguarded. The only guards she encountered were running full tilt towards the palace, swords unsheathed. Quickly, she tied the rope to the base of a tree, and climbed through the window down, down, down, down, into the bottom of the dungeon.
There, she found Samir, lying unmoving on the stone. She forced the vial of water through clenched teeth and cursed colorfully at him, imploring, begging, demanding that he not be dead. The water of life can cure even the most dire of wounds, but only God can cure death. He lay so cold and still.
And then he coughed, and began to stir. In minutes he was fit and well, and he and Esther were climbing the rope to escape from the dungeon.
So it was that Esther and Samir made their escape. They fled to the All Seeds Inn, where they were regaled with stories of the chaos at the palace. Apparently the simorgh that guarded the tree of all seeds had descended upon the banquet hall and eaten every last guest.
Esther and Samir went home with the old man, and took over his restaurant, where they make the golden filled pastry that Samir once gave to a princess. But now, they make them without sesame seeds, and they call them samosas.
This story is lovely. I tried to wait until I could hear it in performance but I couldn’t. I thought I would just take a peek and before I knew it I was so enthralled that I read the whole thing. I must say as far as stories go, its at least as good as Battlestar Galactica… which you know is my highest form of story telling compliment. WELL DONE RACHEL!
Before everything I have to excuse for my bad English .
I am Iranian and ” Simurgh ” is a myth in our ancient history . Your discribtion in this beautiful story about Simurgh actully is about ” Shir-daal ” that means ” lion-eagle ” . This is a comonly mistake that most of the people make ( also wikipedia ) . There are so many refernces that discribe the diferences between them in Farsi , our own language . I found these about Simurgh in English .
As you see ,shir-dal which you call it gryphon or hyppogryph , has eagle head and teeth that makes us to see it as a dog (although sometimes without wings ) In Persepolis you can see so many shir-daals . But Simorgh is compeletely a ” bird ” which has beautiful wings and long tail . It is so similar to phoenix . In our ancient religion and stories and poems Simorgh is very wise and is able to speak and even sometimes has a human face but with a bird body .
It is not hyppogriph or gryphon or …. It is just a very beautiful wise bird .
please search in google images for their names . Wikipedia has made wrong about it .
Thank you so much for the correction, Azita! I’ll fix the story the first chance I get. Would you be interested in helping me correct wikipedia, so the mistake doesn’t propagate?