There was once an old fisherman who lived in great poverty with a wife and three children. But though poorer than others he ever toiled in humble submission to the decrees of Providence, and so, at the same hour each day, he would cast his net four times into the sea, and whatever it brought up to him therewith he rested content.
One day, having cast for the first time, he found his net so heavy that he could scarcely draw it in; yet when at last he got it to shore all that it contained was the carcass of an ass.
He cast a second time, and found the draught of the net even heavier than before. But again he was doomed to disappointment, for this time it contained nothing but a large earthenware jar full of mud and sand. His third attempt brought him only a heap of broken old bottles and potsherds : fortune seemed to be against him. Then, committing his hope to Providence, he cast for the fourth and last time ; and once more the weight of the net was so great that he was unable to haul it. When at last he got it to land, he found that it contained a brazen vessel, its mouth closed with a leaden stopper, bearing upon it the seal of King Solomon.
The sight cheered him. 'This,' thought he, 'I can sell in the market, where I may get for it enough to buy a measure of corn; and, if one is to judge by weight, what lies within may prove yet more valuable.'
Thus reckoning, he prised out the stopper with his knife, and turning the vessel upside down looked for the contents to follow. Great was his astonishment when nothing but smoke came out of it. The smoke rose in a thick black column and spread like a mist between earth and sky, till presently, drawing together, it took form; and there in its midst stood a mighty Genie, whose brows touched heaven while his feet rested upon ground. His head was like a dome, his hands were like flails, and his legs like pine trees; his mouth was black as a cavern, his nostrils were like trumpets, his eyes blazed like torches, and his wings whirled round and over him like the simoom of the desert.
At so fearful a sight all the fisherman's courage oozed out of him; but the Genie, perceiving him, cried with a loud voice, '0, Solomon, Prophet of God, slay me not, for never again will I withstand thee in word or deed.'
No sooner had the monarch seen them, so strange of form and so brilliant and diverse in hue.
'Alas!' said the fisherman, 'I am no prophet; and as for Solomon, he has been dead for nearly two thousand years. I am but a poor fisherman whom chance has knocked by accident against thy door.'
'In that case,' answered the Genie, 'know that presently thou wilt have to die.'
'Heaven forbid!' cried the fisherman; 'or, at least, tell me why ! Surely it might seem that I had done thee some service in releasing thee.
'Hear first my story,' said the Genie, 'then shalt thou understand.'
'Well, if I must!' said the fisherman, resigning himself to the inevitable; ' but make it short, for truly I have small stomach left in me now for the hearing of tales.'
'Know, then,' said the Genie, 'that I am one of those spirits which resisted the power and dominion of Solomon; and when, having brought into submission all the rest of my race, he could not make me yield to him either reverence or service, he caused me to be shut up in this bottle, and sealing it with his own seal cast it down into the depths of the sea.
'Now when I had lain there prisoner for a hundred years, I swore in my heart that I would give to the man that should release me all the treasures attainable in heaven or earth. But when none came to earn so great a reward in all the hundred years that followed, then I swore that I would give to my liberator earthly riches only; and when this gift also had lain despised for yet another hundred years, then would I promise no more than the fulfilment of three wishes. But thereafter finding that all promises and vows were vain, my heart became consumed with rage, and I swore by Allah that I would only grant to the fool that should release me his own choice of the most cruel form of death by which he should die. Now therefore accept that mercy which I still offer and choose thy penalty!' When the fisherman heard this he gave himself up for lost, yet he did not the less continue by prayer and supplication to entreat the Genie from his purpose. But when he found that there was no heart left in him to be moved, then for the first time he bestirred his wits, and remembering how that which is evil contains far less wisdom than that which is good, and so falls ever the more readily into the trap prepared for it, he spoke thus : 'O Genie, since thou art determined on my death, there is yet a certain thing touching thine honour that I would first know. So, by the Ineffable Name, which is the seal of Solomon, I will ask thee one question, and do thou swear to answer it truly.'
The Genie was ready enough to give the oath as desired. Then said the fisherman, 'How is it that one so great as thou art, whose feet o'er-step the hills and whose head out-tops the heaven - how can such an one enter into so small a vessel to dwell in it? Truly, though mine eyes tell me I have seen it, I cannot any longer believe so great a marvel.'
' What ?' cried the Genie, 'dost thou not believe what I have already told thee? '
'Not till I have seen it done can I believe it,' said the fisherman.
Thereupon, without more waste of words, the Genie, drawing his limbs together and folding himself once more in a thick veil of smoke, descended from his vast altitude into the narrow neck of the brazen vessel till not one shred or film of him remained to view. Then the fisher-man with a quick hand replaced the leaden stopper, and laughing, cried to the Genie, 'Choose now, thou in thy turn, by what manner of death thou wilt die.'