Once upon a time there was a time when there was no one but God.
There was an old man whose business was to gather thorn bushes for fuel. He had one wife and seven daughters, and was very poor. Every day that came he used to go out to his thorn-gathering, and he used to sell in the bazar each evening the load of thorns which he had brought back. All the while his wife and daughters worked hard at their spinning, and so they were just able with the greatest difficulty to keep from starving.
So it went on, till one day he went out as usual to gather thorns and was very late in coming back. The call to evening prayer had sounded before he came along on his way home carrying his load of thorns. As he came down a certain street an old woman dressed in her outdoor clothes, with black mantle and white veil, came out of a door just in front of him.
1 In Persia women as a general rule dislike the sisters of their husband, though these are usually very fond of their brother's children. To a child, therefore, there are two kinds of "aunt" - the mother's sister (khala), whom he is taught to love, and the father's sister ('amma), who spoils him and is kind to him, but whom his mother tries to teach him to hate and fear. The above story is told to children to encourage due distrust of their father's sister.
As soon as she caught sight of the Thorn-gatherer she stepped forward and said: "Brother, where have you been all this time? May I be your sacrifice! May I die before you! It is years since I have heard news of you. Come in and sit down, and let me hear how you are and how the world is using you. How many have you at home? How do you earn your bread? Come in and tell me everything, and pour out all your woes."
Then he answered: "In truth the world uses me hardly enough. I have a wife and seven daughters. Every day I am obliged to go out and gather thorns and sell them to feed myself and them. And so he poured out all his sorrows into the ears of his newly-discovered sister. Then she spoke: "Don't fret, brother dear, and don't worry. I am a rich woman. I have such and such goods and chattels, such and such storehouses, such and such landed properties, and such and such wealth, and you are my own brother. When I left home you were only a little boy, but you haven't changed much, and I still recognised you from your likeness to the child I remember. Brother, why should you slave and starve? Come and live with me, and take it easy, and don't go out gathering thorns any more. Go off, now, and bring your wife and all your children. As long as you live and God gives me a mouthful of bread we shall share it together."
With that the old woman seated herself where she was, while the Thorn-gatherer hurried home and told the whole story to his wife: "Truly, my dear, God has been kind to us. I had a sister, and now she is found again. She is rich and has no relations and no children. We have agreed that I and you and our daughters shall go and live with her, and she will provide for us."
Then he took his wife and daughters by the hand, and they went off to where the aunt was sitting waiting, and she carried them all off to her home and made all preparations to entertain them kindly. She gave them every sort of good food in plenty, and bought them nice clothes, and little by little they began to put on flesh and became fit and well.
Some time passed thus, and one day the wife said to her husband: "Look here, my dear, this sister of yours is showing us so much kindness and generosity, it would be a good thing if we cooked some nice dish some day and sent it in to her." He said: "What can we send? We have nothing." "Go off to the bazar," answered she, "and buy a liver and bring it to me. I'll cook it very nicely and we'll send it to your sister."
So he went to the bazar and brought home a liver. The wife washed it well, and cut it up and cooked it nicely and put it in a bowl. As soon as evening approached, she gave the dish to her little daughter and said: "Go and carry this to your aunt." When the child reached her aunt's door she peeped in before entering and saw that her father's sister had turned into a wolf and was eating a man. She gave a start of terror and fainted away.
The mother ran up and caught her in her arms, and took her back to their own room and brought her round. As soon as she came to herself the mother asked: "What happened to you, my child?" Then the little girl told her what she had seen.
An hour later the husband came home, and his wife said to him: "This sister of yours, husband, is not a human being. She is a wolf who puts on a human body, and she has brought us all here to fatten us and eat us up. Come and let us fly from here this very night." But the husband answered: "Shame upon you, wife! In return for all the kindnesses of my sister you call her a wolf!" And whatever she said he refused to listen to it or believe it.
As soon as evening was come and every one had gone to bed, the wife got up quickly and wakened her seven daughters and carried them straight off to their old home, and settled down there. When morning came the husband woke and saw no sign of his wife and children. He understood what had happened, and went to his sister and complained: "Look, last night my wife said to me: 'Your sister is a wolf who eats human beings, come and let us fly from here,' but I paid no heed to her. Now when I get up this morning I find she has fled and carried off the children."
The old woman said nothing, but waited till evening. As soon as the Thorn-gatherer was asleep she turned as before into the shape of a wolf and came to his bedside and said: "Well, now, as the others have escaped my clutches I shall eat you to-night. Tell me which you would rather I did - eat you down from your head, which is juicy, or up from your feet, which are tasty?" The poor man said: "Do whichever you prefer."
Then she tore him in pieces and ate him, and if he had listened to his wife this would never have happened.
And now my story has come to an end, but the sparrow never got home.