The following tale could well have been told on the one-thousand-and-second night:
In the first decade of the nineteenth century there lived in Reykjavík a merchant who sold new and secondhand furniture in a shop he ran on the first floor of a house his wife owned right next to the city lake. He bought some of his furniture in Copenhagen and had it shipped to him in Iceland. His wife’s house stood a stone’s throw away from the City Theater, where plays of both a sad and joyful nature were often staged.
When there was not that much to do in the store, the merchant either sat or stood by the window, because keeping a close eye on his fellow citizens brought him joy—in all truthfulness it was the young girls who brought the most pleasure to his eyes.
This man of good reputation had once hired a young girl to help out in the shop but his wife had needlessly and unjustly accused her of all sorts of mischief and saw to it that the girl was driven away from the premises. Right on the heels of that she hired a lady who was both older and far uglier than herself.
In the very depths of his soul, the poor merchant often lamented the folly of taking such an evil hag for a wife, but one cannot ignore the fact that the considerable riches she brought him had affected his choice. And her father had greatly added to the original terms, so eager was he to marry off his daughter. The merchant was as handsome as his wife was ugly. They had little in common except for their mutual love of the theater.
From the first day of his marriage the merchant never felt himself a free man.
Each hour of each day he could hear his wife’s footsteps through the ceiling above his head.
At the time our tale takes place, many joyful plays were staged at the theater and the couple saw them all. One of the most popular was called An Adventurous Walk in the Countryside. It was an enormously popular show with many roles in it. The manager of the theater had added additional actors and one of them was a young lady, small-featured but beautiful. Her delightful charm was such that she was the crown jewel of the stage, and although her hair was the brightest color ever seen on the stage of the City Theater, she was called the “black thief” of the production.
She stole the merchant’s heart right from the premiere and she later stole his very soul, and this is, in fact, the very essence of our tale.
During the day the merchant used every available moment to go to the window, hoping to get a glimpse of the young lady on her way to the theater for a rehearsal or a performance. On occasion he was fortunate enough to have her wander into his field of vision. And one fine day when she walked past in all her glory, he summoned up the courage to open the door and address her in the most casual manner: “We are exceptionally fortunate in the good weather we’re enjoying today, Madam.”
When she realized that the handsome man with the thick mustache standing in the doorway of the shop had been addressing her, she looked around and replied, “Yes, it’s true, we are indeed blessed with exceptionally beautiful weather today.”
She crossed the street and entered the shop. She had a good eye for furniture of quality and, it might be added, a handsome man didn’t often go unnoticed by her.
All of this resulted in the merchant closing up shop in the middle of the day and inviting her to a café. They each had a cup of coffee and a slice of tasty cake. Never before in all the days of his life had he seen such a delicious morsel disappear into such a delightful mouth.
“Could it be that you need an extra job, perhaps as a shop assistant?” he asked with some hesitation. She made a face and replied that she couldn’t possibly be in any one space for such a long spell of time.
He should have taken notice then and there of the grave warning in her reply.
One fine day that summer a ship docked at the harbor, its hull filled with furniture destined for the merchant. As was his habit, he hired day laborers to drive the merchandise to the shop in horse- and hand-driven carriages.
In the days that followed, many curious citizens came by to inspect the newly arrived furniture—some of it sold and some did not, as was the custom. One piece that went unsold was a magnificent mirror framed in mahogany. The mirror was shaped like a man’s face—the chin was narrow, the forehead wide, and on each side protruded leaves that resembled ears.
As the merchant locked up one evening, his mind wandered to the young actress and he sighed, “Oh, how I envy the free man who is his own boss and could on any given day bring her red roses. Such a man could truly claim happiness as his own.”
At that very instant he heard a grim, husky voice utter, “My nature is such that I make the wishes of men come true.”
And at the same instant he saw the young actress walking by the city lake; she turned and waved to him most pleasantly.
And in the following instant his wife came through the door, and she had never appeared uglier to him. She reminded him of a skinny mare with enormous buckteeth.
He asked, “Did you just say something?”
She replied, “Have you gone crazy? I didn’t say a word. Will you come upstairs?”
“I have things to attend to,” he said. “I’ll come as soon as my work is done.”
At these words she took a quick glance toward the lake. She expected the bright-haired actress from An Adventurous Walk in the Countryside to pass by at that very instant.
When she had gone upstairs, the merchant sat down on a stool and sighed a second time, “Oh, how I envy the free man who is his own master.”
At this the grim, husky voice uttered, “A short while ago I mentioned that my nature was such to make the wishes of men come true.”
The merchant rose, took an uneasy look around his shop and said, “Is someone here? Who, may I ask, just spoke to me?”
“I am an honest man, unjustly dubbed ‘the Slayer of Souls,’ and I dwell within your mirror.”
The merchant should have had the good sense to cut the conversation short right then from the name alone, but his lust for the young actress was far too great.
He looked into the mirror, and even if all the greatest Arabic writers had at that moment entered the shop to bring to life the image he now saw forming in front of his very eyes, it is not at all sure they would have succeeded in doing so. A face drew itself together from the darkness in the glass; it was tiny to begin with but soon engulfed the entire mirror. It was the face of a handsome young fellow, but there was a look of menace in his eye.
“And what do I have to do to get my wishes fulfilled?” asked the merchant.
“Dwell within the mirror after death so that I may wander the Earth,” replied the Slayer of Souls.
“To dwell there after death can hardly be worse than my present condition,” the merchant replied. “And how happy I would be if I were free and my wife were now there in your place.”
No sooner had he uttered those words than a driver of a horse carriage, one of the day laborers who usually helped him with his furniture, entered and shouted in terror, “Oh my Lord, honorable merchant, there has been a terrible accident. I was moving some merchandise, as I usually do, when I caught sight of your wife. She was walking down Main Street and for some unknown reason she stumbled just as I passed, and her head, dear master, landed beneath my wheel and was crushed. She is dead and has been taken to the morgue.”
At this news the merchant sat down on his stool, buried his face in his hands and shook uncontrollably. The citizens of Reykjavík gathered outside the window in droves and watched him with great sympathy. Many became teary-eyed when they witnessed the merchant’s enormous grief. But the truth is that if he had taken his hands from his eyes they would have been startled, because the merchant was having the greatest laugh of his life.
When the crowd had disappeared, the merchant rose, a happy man. For an instant he thought he saw the face of his wife from within the mirror. It was sad and wracked with worry. The mouth moved and he thought he heard her say, “Take no wife in my place.”
But most likely he was hearing things.
He grabbed the mirror, carried it up to the attic, drew the curtains and locked the door. Had he looked at the mirror at that instant he would have seen the spirit of his late wife break from the surface of the mirror up to her waist and reach desperately toward him, such was her yearning to be among the living.
When enough time had passed the merchant greatly increased his visits to the theater. No one was surprised that the poor man wanted some relief from his intense grief. This may well tell us a little something about the humdrum nature of life in Reykjavík at the time.
Not too long passed before he was leading a lady of delicate features, a certain fair-haired actress, around town on Sundays and for strolls around the city lake. She had an umbrella over her shoulder and he was dressed in an all-white suit. And not long thereafter they held a majestic wedding.
And when the young lady had become mistress of the house she switched the furniture from the apartment with things that caught her eye in the shop. The one thing she kept and never traded in was the old marriage bed. She very much enjoyed being made love to by her husband in a bed that had belonged to another woman.
As time passed she took to running the store. Her business sense was keen and their fortune blossomed and many were the ships that sailed in close to fully loaded with merchandise they had ordered from abroad. And she was such an amiable lady that the citizens of the town would rather trade with her than anyone else. And quite a few of them were young men.
At this her husband became intensely jealous and forbade her to appear on the stage of the City Theater, where the first and second rows were usually bought up by the same young men when plays were staged that she had a part in. And so it happened that the merry disposition disappeared from their marriage, for there is no greater folly, nor one that brings harsher punishment down onto the heads of husbands than needless jealousy and the desire to own not only the body of their wives but their very souls and every thought. There are many storytellers throughout the ages who have called upon Allah himself as a witness to this simple truth.
She took no more kindly to her husband’s habit of following her every step around the house than to his unjust decision to keep her from the stage.
Occasionally she was driven to such desperate lengths as locking herself in the attic to gain a moment of peace. The attic room was dark and unwelcoming and there wasn’t even one rickety chair for her to sit on. There was no furniture there at all except for an old mirror. She often stood by the window and peered out from behind the curtain toward freedom. From there she saw the roof of the theater and remembered with great sorrow those days when the eyes of all the young men stared straight at her as she performed role after role in play after play, both famous light operas as well as dark dramas. “Oh, if only there was some freedom in this life,” she sighed. “I would give my soul if only I could be rid of my husband.”
That very day she had ordered some merchandise to be transported to the shop from the harbor, and as soon as she entered the shop the driver she had hired came running through the door and shouted, “Oh, my dear mistress, a great misfortune has occurred. I was on my way here with a full load when I saw your man on Main Street. He was walking a bit unsteadily and he waved to me. I suspected that he wanted a lift home so I grabbed the reins, but at that same instant your poor husband stumbled and his head landed right underneath the wheel. He has, I am sorry to report, already been taken to the morgue.”
When this news became known throughout town, it was, needless to say, considered a strange coincidence that the merchant was killed in the very same manner as his former wife. But perhaps it was not so strange at all, people soon concluded. He had been extremely close to his previous wife, folks said. He had missed her greatly and had taken to drink of late and had often been seen walking quite unsteadily on his way home in the evenings.
But great was the regret of the poor man who drove the wagon.
He came into the shop the very next day to ask forgiveness of the young lady, and he came again the following day and the day after that. The young widow took pity on him and could do no better than to give him some comfort.
When she rose from the bed and inspected her body and saw how beautiful it was, she looked at the driver still resting in the bed and said, “What a great, young, strapping fellow you are. I want you to go get the mirror from the attic and put it right here on the bedroom wall so I can look at myself and enjoy my beauty. It’s not fair that it is a gift only given to others.”
He did as she asked. And she began to act again in the theater, and that made her happy, and she kept her youthful appearance for many years to come.
She never remarried but took many lovers, all in the old marriage bed; the great mirror added to her enjoyment as well as to that of her lovers.
No one knew that her husband was now imprisoned inside the mirror alongside his first wife.
And of the Slayer of Souls it can only be added that to this very day he wanders to and fro across the Earth.
The author thanks Steven Meyers for his assistance with the translation.
Translation of “Sálnagleypir.” First published in Meistaraverkið og fleiri sögur, JPV útgáfa, Reykjavík. © 2011 by Ólafur Gunnarsson. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2011 by Ólafur Gunnarsson. All rights reserved.