“No, drop it! You don’t know where it’s been, Girl.”
Caution was warranted. The old man knew this creek well. Downstream of a fairly large country town, it held over a hundred years’ worth of throwaways, washaways and runaways, or their remains, in its banks and bed. Even after two decades of shuffling along the same stretch, the old man knew there might be something different.
Floods, and the occasional erosion landslip, laid bare little things. Big things turned up, too: the complete sail of a Southern Cross windmill, the chassis of a Hudson Terraplane from the 1930s, the greenish mystery object that weighed 11 kilograms and turned out to be a huge spigot fitting made of brass, part of a fire mains system from some long-demolished building.
It was probably just as well The Missus didn’t let him bring home the windmill or the car-wreck, really, he thought.
The dog, bounding through Council’s knee-high weeds, held another green thing… it looked like the top of a jar or pot, perhaps the size of a jam-tin. As she came out of the longer grass, the bottle became clearer. It was about the size of the Darwin stubby the old man had retrieved a couple of years ago. As usual, The Missus had made him put it out of the way somewhere. It was beside the shed in a crate, probably collecting redback spiders…
Standing on the dusty ground above the creek, he examined the dog’s find more closely, as she grudgingly let go of her latest plaything.
“Unbroken, really old, looks like poison, maybe sheep dip or some sure-fire bug killer”, he mumbled to the dog beside him.
There was no text on the dark glass, merely some squiggles which may have been a Middle-Eastern script.
All the memories and thoughts dispersed, buzzing, like flies from a dead rabbit, as the old man looked more closely.
“Dirt aside, it’s in pretty good nick, Girl. With that brass lid, it’s got to be something rare. Maybe there’s a few bucks for us at one of the antique places. Otherwise, The Missus will have it out back in the crates.”
He held the object up against the sun. A slight bluish tinge suffused the black, and roiled as if a thick fluid was inside. As he shook it gently, the contents slopped weightily.
“Wonder what’s in there… Lucky my wrists are in better shape than the shoulders, back or legs, eh Girl? It must be from marrying late.”
He removed his leather belt and doubled it back, with the lid in the loop, and applied some leverage. Eventually, after a few grunts and curses, the top unscrewed clockwise.
As the old man was wondering just whose products were so maverick as to be sealed with a left-hand thread, the opening of the bottle began to smoke, and a loud, deep, groan was heard, rising slowly in pitch and loudness.
“Fuck! Nerve gas!” muttered the old man, as he and the brave dog retreated a few yards.
The smoke rose to form a cloud as tall as some of the nearby camphor-laurel trees. Rather than dispersing, it gathered upon itself and thickened.
Looking on, the old man wondered whether he might have uncorked a US military or CIA chemical experiment, because what he was starting to see looked like something from the cartoons, come to life.
The Genie winked one of his family-pizza-sized eyes.
“Sure I’m blue. I have to appear this way, because it’s how your people think of Genies now. I’ve had a lot of time to think and catch the airwaves while I’ve been trapped in that accursed jar.”
The old man shuffled back from his retreat zone. “I’m glad I never saw the movie, or I reckon you’d be talking puns and free-associating nineteen to the dozen by now.”
A blue frown came from above. “I have some standards. I do all my own material, but it’s rather downbeat. After all, I spent the last few years with only a bottle of Djinn for company.”
The old man groaned, for he was no stranger to Dad Jokes. He and the dog inched closer as the Genie continued.
“Anyway, you’ve freed me, and I am obliged by the Code of my kind to grant you a wish. Please let me know your will, and it shall be done.”
The sun was dropping now, toward the silos a few hundred metres the other side of the creek. The old man smiled as he thought of a cup of ginger-honey tea The Missus would be making for him, and how one of his cookies would be broken, so the dog could have a corner.
He’d possibly be a little late this afternoon.
“So, Genie… I hope it’s okay to address you as ‘Genie’…”
“Certainly, old man.”
“Yes, I’m fine with ‘old man’. It’s better than what my father called me. Anyway, Genie, I basically just need to ask, and it will be given to me, or done, then I get to see what changes my choice has brought to be, like in all the cautionary tales. Is that it?”
The Genie settled on a tall stump and sighed.
“Those tales Richard Burton picked up? My people get a lot of bad press. We’re people of our word, and exceptionally kind and ethical for a group of vilified, oppressed magical constructs.
“We can discuss the choosing process if you like. Assume no physical or numerical limit. I could, for example, bring you more gold than the total of matter existing in this Universe. What happens to the Universe afterward is your own liability.
“You could, if you want, pull the old ‘Ten more wishes’ trick, but I have to warn you there’s a subclause in the Code that ensures you don’t enjoy the results of any of that sort of trickery.
“There’s no undoing your wish, and we can discuss it until the sun sets, before you must decide.”
The old man knew he didn’t have quite that long. The Missus wasn’t fierce, but the old man didn’t want to bring her Disappointed Face on. He briefly considered phoning her on what he termed “My Old Man Leash”, but decided against worrying her.
This would need to be quick. Bother! He hadn’t had to make quick decisions with big consequences in over twenty years. At least with the ‘marry me’ one, he’d decided right.
“Well, Genie, I’ve thought about property and money. We’ve got just about enough to see us over the line, and the people who pay the pension would start taking money away as soon as they noticed we had some. I could solve this with a few million, but I can foresee problems from relatives and random robbers. Only the intensity of the attack would vary, and I don’t want Dog put down for defending us.
“We’re kind of settled where we are, and even the dirty bits on the windows are familiar. Anyway, they stop the little birds from smacking into the glass.
“The old car has a few years left in it yet, and who’s to say what will become of petrol, or even civilisation, by then?
“I’m fairly sure your Code would regard it as a cheat if I tried to make The Missus, Dog, and myself a package deal for ‘Restore To Peak Of Health And Youth’… (the Genie nodded affirmation)… and anyway, I don’t think I want to be a teenager again.
“The older and further from it I get, the more fun I think it was, but still I know.”
The old man tapped his age-spotted temple with a large-knuckled forefinger, and continued.
“You’ve been listening to radio in that jar since broadcasting began, so you’ve got to know what I’m talking about here. Life’s like a song. A few verses, a chorus, a catchy middle bit, and if it’s a really good one, a One More Time. The fade’s as important as the intro, though. I wouldn’t want to be one of those bloody endless Yes numbers from the seventies, where even some guys in the band got bored and ate curry while waiting for it to end.
“You don’t want too much of anything, whether it’s wah-wah guitar or a drum solo. What would be really bad is if life got written to some pop-hit formula. It would take your choices away. You’d get bottled up in having to do things, because of the things you have or the things you have to be. Even my dog has a good life, and I don’t think I’d change her routine again. She will be with us till the end, like her old playmate Connie was.”
“What about I wish that I don’t want your wish? I’m not stupid enough to drown the world in an endless supply of chocolate biscuits.”
The Genie winced at that one.
“I am sorry. We must do something to use up the wish. Until we have finished that, I am tied to this accursed bottle, and the Code may require that I avenge myself.”
The old man bent and scratched the dog behind the ear. She had been more than patient, and had been quiet in the face of extraordinary things. Her tail swept to and fro in the dust.
After a few minutes, he straightened as far as he could, and addressed the Genie.
“Is the wish transferable?”
The apparition flickered for a moment, and rippled like a thumped 1950s TV set. Pop culture had a lot to answer for.
With a shower of what might have been blue static, the Genie refocussed.
“The Code has no restraint on altruism. It doesn’t say you can’t hand the wish on, but it must be given, freely, to a sentient being, and from what I see of the sun’s angle, we have half an hour.”
“Very well, Genie. You know a lot about these things, and how to use them. What’s more, you’ve had a harder time with the bottle than my mate, the Mad Blacksmith. The wish is yours, if you’ll take it.”
She galloped up from the creek, carrying an empty, black bottle, of surprising ugliness.
“No, drop it! You don’t know where it’s been, Girl. And you, Bluey, come back here, boy. Wait!”
Then the old man and his two dogs walked off toward home, as it might as well have always been.