“The Adventures of Sindbad The Seafarer” is one of the most beloved Polish books for children. Written in 1913 by one of the greatest Polish poets of the century, Bolesław Leśmian, the book is loosely based on the stories of Sinbad the Sailor from the classic Middle Eastern collection One Thousand and One Nights. However, Leśmian developed this material very differently, introducing completely new episodes and characters, like Sindbad’s poetry-writing uncle Tarabuk and his cunning but sympathetic nemesis the Sea Devil.
In the following excerpt from the book’s First Adventure, we find Sindbad in one of Leśmian’s newly-invented episodes. Our story begins as Sindbad is leaving the palace of King Miraz, to whose daughter he is now engaged, in order to visit the mysterious island of Kassel – the seat of the evil sorcerer Degyal. Perhaps the only thing that makes him a bit uneasy is the king and princess’s strange habit of mispronouncing his name as ‘Hindbad’. But, for now, this does not seem all that important.
Night fell. I was led to a palace chamber that had been prepared for me. I soon fell sound asleep, worn out with all my adventures. At dawn I woke refreshed and ready for my journey to Kassel.
By my chamber door stood a knight, waiting to lead me to the shore and direct me to the magic island. I followed him quickly to a nearby cove, where a small boat with two oars was moored. The knight pointed out a black dot on the horizon and told me to row the boat towards it. That dot was the island of Kassel.
Merrily, I leapt into the boat and rowed off.
Within six hours I had approached Kassel closely enough that I could hear the mysterious booming of the far-off gongs. I began to row the boat faster, and shortly reached the shore of the strange isle.
I jumped out and pulled the boat high up onto the sand to stop the tide from carrying it away. I ran further up the beach, looking around me in wonder. The island was completely barren, covered in rocks and boulders. The sound of the invisible gongs began to grow louder. Evidently, seeing me on his island, Degyal was making his gongs clash louder in order to stun me. My ears were filled with such a thunderous noise that I almost fainted. I made an effort of will to stay alert, and walked on boldly.
Suddenly, I recalled Piruza’s words: “Degyal hides away from human sight, and, while remaining invisible himself, sees everyone and everything around him.” Hardly had I recalled these words when I felt the piercing gaze of the invisible spirit upon me. He can see me! I thought. I could feel myself reflected from head to toes in the pupils of Degyal’s monstrous eyes. I felt him staring at me, stalking my every move, his unseen eyes boring into my face.
If you can see me, hit the gongs harder, I thought.
At that moment the awful metallic shriek of the gongs rose.
I felt myself blanch with fear, but even more disturbing was the thought that Degyal could see this. I hastily covered my face with my hands – only to realize that Degyal could see this, too.
The thought that I was visible to Degyal but unable to see him filled me with anger as well as fear. My anger was so great that it pushed aside the fear. The previous day’s success had made me so confident that I had come to view myself as an extraordinary man, whom no one, not even Degyal, could equal. But in the presence of this invisible being I now felt small and feeble. This feeling of slightness and weakness enraged me.
I clenched my fists, stamped my foot, and shouted:
“Appear or speak to me, you… invisible creature!”
Degyal’s voice resounded amidst the clanging of his gongs:
“I will not appear to you, as I hate human sight! I choose to remain invisible. I prefer to speak, so that you hear my words but see nothing. You have insulted me by clenching your fists and stamping your foot. I will avenge the insult! You are small and weak in the face of my strength. I could kill you with one twitch of my eyebrows if not for the protective amulet. But I can still wreak revenge on you. You believe yourself to be a mighty and unusual man. You imagine there is no one else in the whole world to equal you. I will punish your pride. With one wave of my hand I will create a human being as like you as two peas are in a pod.”
“Then create one!” I shouted angrily, and stamped my foot again.
In the place where my foot had touched the ground there suddenly appeared a man so like me that I stepped back in fear. He had exactly my eyes and my face, he was of my height, and even wore my clothes. He stood there quietly, deep in thought. He didn’t even deign to look at me or greet me with a bow.
I stood rooted to the spot, eyeing him with dismay.
After a while, my strange twin’s indifference began to unnerve me, so I asked him warily:
“It’s me – don’t you see me?”
“I can see you, but your presence doesn’t interest me,” he replied.
“Tell me at least what your name is?” I asked, fearfully.
“My name is Hindbad,” said the man with my voice.
“Hindbad?” I laughed loudly, shrugging my shoulders in scorn. “That’s my own name, garbled by King Miraz.”
“So what?” asked my look-alike. “I prefer a name which the king, himself, has deigned to garble, to the name you bear, unknown stranger.”
“Unknown?” I cried angrily. “You are wrong to call me unknown. You clearly haven’t heard that tomorrow I am going to be crowned king, ruler of half a mighty kingdom!”
“Not you, but I will be crowned king and ruler of half a mighty kingdom tomorrow,” Hindbad replied calmly.
I laughed again and said, mockingly:
“Goodbye, dear Hindbad! I must hurry now, as I don’t wish to be late for my wedding to the beautiful Piruza, daughter of King Miraz. I have no time to chat with you.” I turned away and walked back towards the beach, where I had left my boat.
Hindbad followed me.
I hurried towards the boat and leapt into it.
Hindbad leapt in after me.
His presence in the boat filled me with unease. I felt a revulsion for this creature whom Degyal had, with one wave of his hand, brought into existence. A sense of foreboding grew within me. Quickly I pushed off from the shore and when the boat was on the open sea I decided to rid myself of Hindbad’s disturbing company by throwing him overboard.
But Hindbad guessed my intention.
“You want to throw me into the water?” he asked with a smile.
“Yes!” I reached out to get hold of him.
Hindbad glanced at me so strangely that I felt my hands fall by my sides, numb. I could not move them at all.
“I don’t understand why you want to get rid of me,” observed Hindbad in mock-surprise. “After all, I am your equal in every way. You should care for me and love me as you love yourself. I have your voice, your eyes, your face, even your clothes. I am just as brave, just as clever as you. You have to admit that I deserve to be the husband of the lovely Piruza, the son-in-law of King Miraz and ruler of half his kingdom.”
I said nothing.
Once I was able to move my hands again, I grasped the oars and went on rowing. We glided along in silence, watching one another with distrust and disdain. Hindbad seemed like a mirror image of myself. It was his resemblance to me that disturbed me, more than just the presence of another man in the boat. I felt the mysterious depths of the sea beneath me, and close by, only the unsettling sight of my strange twin.
He sat opposite me, looking silently into my eyes. His silence made me angry.
“Why are you so silent?” I asked.
“And why have you been so silent?” asked Hindbad in turn.
“I’ve been silent because I have nothing to say to you!” I replied.
“I too have been silent because I have nothing to say to you!” retorted Hindbad proudly.
“Do you imagine, my lord Hindbad, that I will row you all the way, like a ferryman?”
“We can take turns rowing, my lord Sindbad,” replied Hindbad and casually took the oars from my hands.
He barely moved the oars. But the boat sped forward, driven by an invisible force. This strange boat ride frightened me, but I tried not to let Hindbad see my fear. Hindbad stared silently into my eyes, scarcely touching the oars. In the end, he stopped rowing altogether, yet the boat still slid forward at an alarming rate.
In silence we reached the shores of King Miraz’s island.
I jumped out onto the sand. Hindbad jumped out after me.
It was only now that I realized that I had spent a whole day and night on Kassel and returned to King Miraz’s land on the day of my wedding.
It was now morning. I made my way to the palace to greet Piruza, who must have missed me, and King Miraz, whom I had won over with my cleverness two days earlier. I walked swiftly. Hindbad walked just as swiftly, behind me. As we neared the palace, I suddenly felt my legs go numb. I was stuck to the spot, as sometimes happens to you in dreams, when you try to run and can’t move. I tried my utmost to walk on, but to no avail. Clearly, I was under a spell.
Hindbad passed me and entered the palace alone.
Powerless and horrified, I waited for the numbness to go away. A few minutes later it did. I ran into the palace and went straight to the throne room. I found Hindbad there, in the arms of King Miraz, who, with tears in his eyes, was thanking him for returning in time for the wedding. Piruza stood next to them, and gazed joyfully at Hindbad.
“Dear Hindbad,” the king was saying. “Your trip to Degyal’s island worried me a great deal. I feared that you might die, that I might never see you again!”
“I knew you would be brave and clever enough to escape any dangers,” said Piruza proudly. “I kept telling my father that Hindbad could not die!”
“You were right,” said Hindbad. “I am too brave and clever to die even in combat with such a mighty being as Degyal.”
Hearing these words I burned with rage. I took a step forward and cried:
“Your Majesty! Can you not see your own mistake?”
King Miraz looked at me. Piruza looked at me. The king was astonished. So was Piruza. Before them were two men as alike as two peas in a pod.
“What is the meaning of this?” cried the king. “What a strange resemblance! It’s making me dizzy. Instead of one, I see two future sons-in-law, only one of whom can be the right man!”
“And I see two future husbands!” said Piruza, despairingly. “Which of them shall I marry today?”
“Me,” said Hindbad calmly.
“Silence, liar!” I shouted, outraged. “Not you but I am betrothed to Piruza! Your Majesty, beware of this monster, do not be fooled by his resemblance to me! Degyal created him to punish me for having offended him. This is an artificial creature, conjured up by black magic, whom Piruza must never wed. From the moment he first sprang into existence he has dogged my every step. Outside the palace he cast a spell on me that froze me to the spot, so that I couldn’t warn you both about him!”
King Miraz frowned, and thought to himself. At length, he asked me:
“What is your name?”
“Sindbad,” I said.
“And you, what is your name?” the king asked Hindbad.
“Hindbad,” replied my look-alike.
“If I remember correctly, my son-in-law’s name is Hindbad,” declared the king.
“Oh yes, his name is Hindbad!” Piruza agreed gladly.
“Your Majesty! Piruza!” I cried in despair. “My name has always been Sindbad, but you kept getting it wrong! Can’t you recall how many times I corrected you? I kept asking you to call me Sindbad, not Hindbad!”
“It’s true that Piruza and I do mishear names,” said King Miraz. “But whatever name we come up with is the name we stick with – we treat the original as a mistake, our own version as the real name. That is our habit, which we have no intention of changing. In our view, the young man who is to wed Piruza is named Hindbad.”
Hindbad took a triumphant step towards the king and pointed at me with scorn:
“Forgive me, your Majesty, for my chance resemblance to that untrustworthy foreigner. But I promise you that nothing else links us. I am honest and honourable, while he is a worthless thief. He stole the amulet which Princess Piruza lent me. The evidence is right there on his neck – he’s wearing the amulet for all to see, he must have forgotten to hide it.”
King Miraz and Piruza looked at my neck and said, indignantly:
“Thief! Scoundrel! Of all the insolence! He hasn’t even bothered to hide what he stole!”
“Justice!” I moaned. “I am innocent. I have never sullied my hands with theft! Piruza, dear Piruza! Don’t you remember hanging the amulet around my neck yourself to ward off Degyal’s attack? But you couldn’t shield me from his horrible revenge! He is inflicting torments on me now. Piruza, you alone can save me from this state of affairs. Look closely at me and your heart will tell you who I am! It won’t deceive you. It will beat harder when you look at me, it will tell the truth from lies, Sindbad from Hindbad, and show you which of us is your future husband and which an unworthy imposter!”
“Look at the two of them, Piruza!” exclaimed King Miraz. “First at one, then the other, then at both of them. Let your heart guide you, and tell me which man it chooses.”
Piruza looked first at me, then at Hindbad, then at both of us. She said shyly:
“My heart points to each of them. They are equally charming, equally handsome, equally eloquent. And they are so alike that it’s really all the same to me which of them I marry. I find myself trusting both of them. So I think there is a better way to resolve this quandary. Our country has a special custom: on the day of their wedding, the bridegroom gives the bride a gift. I am sure that each of you has prepared a gift for me. I shall marry whichever of you gives me the loveliest, most amazing gift.”
At these words, I was deeply dismayed. The events of the previous day – the constant clanging of invisible gongs on the island of Kassel, the encounter with Degyal, the sudden appearance of Hindbad – all of this had so distracted me that I had entirely forgotten to find a present for Piruza. Ashamed, I hung my head.
“Where is your gift?” asked Hindbad mockingly.
“I don’t have one,” I whispered brokenly.
Piruza, disgusted, turned her back to me.
Hindbad walked over to Piruza and presented her with a small book bound in gold. Smiling radiantly, Piruza accepted it from his hands. Hindbad then said:
“This is no ordinary book. Of all the books in the world this one is the strangest and most wonderful. You must have heard, beautiful Piruza, how the constant booming of gongs on Kassel means that no living thing can survive there. All of the island’s plants, animals and people have died out. But mighty Degyal turned the inhabitants and the flora and fauna of the island into pictures. He arranged the pictures in this book and placed it in a crack in a rock, as a memento of the once blooming life of Kassel. Everything is still alive in this book, only in miniature. You will see tiny trees here, tiny people, tiny animals. Life goes on inside this book, just as it once did on Kassel. Spring follows winter, summer follows spring and autumn follows summer. The little people of this book plant and harvest crops, build new palaces, hold grand weddings, laugh, weep and bury their dead and greet the newly born. I had to wrestle with Degyal to take this book from him. Our battle was fierce. But I gladly risked my life to bring you this wedding gift. Look inside, and you will see how marvellous it is.”
Piruza opened the book and let out a cry of wonder. On its magical pages were brightly coloured, living pictures. It was spring in the world of the book, bursting with sunlight and the scent of blossoms. Tiny people came out of tiny palaces onto tiny streets. They ran across these streets onto tiny meadows, where they bent down and picked tiny flowers.
Piruza put her ear to the pages and listened to the distant voices of the tiny people. Together, they were all shouting: “It’s spring, it’s spring!” We could hear the singing of tiny birds perched on tiny branches. Piruza gazed at the book in delight, then asked Hindbad, “May I reach into these pictures and take one of the little people out, to have a closer look?”
“You may,” replied Hindbad. “But take care not to knock over their palaces, or break any of the trees, or burn your hand on the little sun which shines in their little sky.”
Piruza reached gingerly into one of the pictures and brought out a tiny man, whom she placed on the palm of her hand. He was the size of a pin. Proudly and gallantly he strode about on her hand.
“Who are you? What is your name?” she asked him.
“My name is Omar the Fourth, called the Great or the Magnificent,” said the little figure. “I am the king of my country. Hold me carefully and be sure not to drop me, as I could die and then our land would be without a king, a terrible state of affairs. To tell you the truth, I don’t much like your big birds, big palaces and big people. I much prefer to live in miniature, which is excellent for my health, and keeps me in good spirits. I must point out that you have been holding me for too long on your hand, taking up time that I must devote to matters of state. Allow me then to make you a royal bow as a gesture of farewell, and then please return me to my homeland.”
The little man bowed low, and Piruza put him carefully back into the picture. Immediately he was surrounded by a crowd of tiny people, greeting him joyfully after what, for them, had been his long absence. Piruza closed the book and exclaimed:
“How can I thank you enough, Hindbad, for such a marvellous surprise! I never dreamt I’d receive such a magical gift! I choose you as my husband. I can see that you are noble and wise. I have no doubt that you are the youth who solved my father’s riddle. As for that foreigner, he is a worthless thief and imposter!”
“Your Majesty! Piruza!” I cried. “I beg you for one thing: command Hindbad to speak the words of the riddle, to prove that he really was present that day in the square when it was proclaimed to the crowd.”
“No more of these tests and proofs!” said Piruza angrily. “They are an insult to my future husband’s dignity. I trust Hindbad, and I love Hindbad. I will no longer put up with the presence of the worthless foreigner in our palace!” And turning to me, she stamped her foot and shouted:
“Out of my sight!”
“Out of my sight!” shouted King Miraz.
“Out of my sight!” shouted Hindbad.
Not wanting to be further insulted, I turned and walked out.
On the street, my sense of outrage passed, but in its place came grief and despair. In an instant I had lost everything that it had taken me just an instant to win. I had lost Piruza, I had lost half a kingdom, and I had lost the crown which was to have been mine in a few hours’ time! How terrible was Degyal’s revenge. The hour of my wedding to Piruza was approaching, but it would be Hindbad, not I, who would marry the princess. In front of the palace a retinue of courtiers and knights on horseback assembled. On a terrace the palace orchestra began to play a lively tune. It was a wedding march.
I hid behind a nearby tree to watch the wedding procession, in which I was to have played an active part, and whose hero had now become Hindbad. Soon, King Miraz, Princess Piruza and Hindbad came happily out of the palace, mounted their steeds and rode away towards the temple, where the high priest would celebrate the couple’s marriage. They were followed by the knights on horseback and the courtiers, who rode in gold carriages. I recognized the horses on which the king, Piruza and Hindbad rode. They pranced gracefully along the street, just as the Sea Horse had taught them. I felt a great pain in my heart. One of those steeds had been prepared for me. On just such a prancing steed, beside that very princess, I was to have gone to the temple, and to have been crowned king. But instead of me, Hindbad rode on that steed. Instead of me, Hindbad tasted happiness. Crowds watched the procession. I heard them cry out, “Long live Hindbad! Long live Hindbad!”
My own name, garbled by the king and the princess, now rang in the air as the name of the future king!
No one knew or even glanced at the real Sindbad, who hid himself behind a tree, to watch and to envy, instead of being watched and envied. I put my arms around the trunk of the tree and for the first time in my life I wept bitterly. I was ashamed of my tears, but could not restrain them. They flowed copiously down my face and my clothes, forming a smallish puddle at my feet.
I must have wept for a long time, for so long in fact that while I was taken up with crying, Hindbad and Piruza were married. I saw the wedding retinue returning to the palace. Eventually, I stopped crying, but I didn’t leave my tree. I stood there stubbornly until night fell and stars sparkled in the sky.
The palace windows glittered with fiery lights. The orchestra thundered. In the windows the silhouettes of dancing couples came and went. I could tell, from behind my tree, which of these silhouettes belonged to the bride and groom. I recognized them by the fact that they were a brighter blue than all the others. It must have been joy that made them that particular shade of blue. It was a strange thought for me that there, in that brightly lit up palace, behind the windows and walls, a man was dancing and laughing with my fiancée at that moment – a man as like me as two peas in a pod, but despite that, my hated enemy.
At midnight, weary with weeping, I leant against my tree-trunk and fell into a heavy, painful sleep. I slept until sunrise, when I was awoken by the touch of someone’s hand. I opened my eyes, still sore from crying. Beside me stood an old woman. Her bony hand was touching my back. “Wake up, wake up!” she whispered.
I looked at her, and could not hide my astonishment. I had never before seen such an ancient, bony, rickety old woman. She spoke not with a voice, but with a murmur. It sounded like the rustling of dry paper. Her eyes were set so deep in their sockets they could no longer be seen. Her face was covered with silvery moss, and on her chin a large toadstool had sprouted. Every so often she would stroke the toadstool with her bony fingers, as though to make sure that it was still there. Judging by her appearance, she must have been at least a thousand years old.
“Why are you waking me?” I asked.
“To warn you of danger,” whispered the old woman.
“Who are you?” I asked in a tired voice.
“You will be surprised when I tell you,” murmured the old woman. “I am the mother of Degyal, but I feel only pity and warmth towards you. My husband was a famous cobbler in this town. When Degyal was born, I was happy, thinking that he would be a worthy heir and take up his father’s honest and noble trade. But Degyal was already a misfit by the age of eight, wasting time with magic tricks, showing nothing but contempt for his parents, and telling us firmly that he would rather be an invisible spirit than even the most famous cobbler in town. My husband and I laughed at his wishes and begged him to take on some real, honest work. But he was stubborn, ignored us and declared he had a calling to work black magic. In vain I and my husband (God rest his soul) advised him that to earn a crust he must take up the cobbler’s trade. He refused to learn his father’s trade and, thanks to his sorcerer’s skills became less and less visible to us with each passing day. Since his childhood, Degyal has hated people, plants and animals. The only thing he loves is music. In his room he amassed thousands of gongs and cymbals, and would bang on these day and night. The sound left me and my husband (God rest his soul) unable to sleep. We lost all energy to work. One day we finally said to Degyal:
‘You are a bad son. Not only have you become harder and harder for us to see, but what’s worse, you deprive us of sleep with your gongs, making us ill. We beg you to stop banging on the gongs and to stop disappearing. If you continue, we will disown you! We don’t want an invisible son who does nothing but bang on gongs day and night.’
Degyal’s response was to vanish from our sight completely. We cursed him for his stubbornness, his disobedience and his love of black magic. From then on, he made his home (together with his gongs) on the island of Kassel, where he has ruled ever since as a powerful, unseen spirit. With the noise of his gongs he stuns every living creature there and sows fear and death around him. And he still refuses to take on an honest trade. Although he is my son, I hate him with all my heart for his monstrousness and his deliberate invisibility. That is why I am warning you of his plans. Not only does he feel hatred for you, but he also hates Hindbad, even though he created him himself and gave him the magical book to charm Piruza. He hates you because you dared to insult him, and he hates Hindbad because he resembles you. So he has decided to kill both you and Hindbad, to put you together in one coffin, and to bury you in a single grave.”
I felt a shudder run down my spine when I heard that I might soon find myself in a single grave, buried together with my enemy. How horrible a grave with two such corpses would be! Who would pray at such a grave? And how would they know who to pray for: the soul of Sindbad or the soul of Hindbad? Even after death that horrid resemblance would pursue me! I would share a coffin, the silence of the tomb and rest everlasting with my monstrous twin, created by black magic.
“Kind old lady!” I cried in despair. “What must I do to avoid this fate?”
“Degyal has begun to work on the magic which he needs to destroy both you and Hindbad. Leave this place and go at once to the city harbour. You will find a ship bound for Balsora there. Board the ship and return to Baghdad. If you do this, you will escape Degyal’s plans. Since he won’t be able to reach you once you are so far away, he will also leave Hindbad in peace and allow him to live on in glory and happiness.”
I thanked Degyal’s mother for her advice. It was painful to hear that in saving myself I would also be saving Hindbad. But I much preferred that to the prospect of being locked up with him forever in a single grave. I bid the old woman goodbye and ran down to the harbour. A ship was indeed waiting there, leaving shortly for Balsora. I boarded it and soon we had sailed out into the sea, getting further and further away from the island of King Miraz.
Translated from the Polish by Mary Besemeres
Introduction written by Mikołaj Gliński
To find out more about the “Sindbad the Seafarer” translation project, click here.
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