I found the bottle when I was clearing out the shed at the bottom of the garden. Years ago, I placed a wooden box in the back corner under the potting shelf. Gradually it had become a repository for items I had little use for or, rather, items I thought I might have a use for some day, things that seemed too good to just toss. The box itself fell into that category. If it had been made of cardboard, I would have flattened and recycled it. But a wooden box was too sturdy to discard. I may have thought it would be useful for carrying smaller items when I needed them in the garden. Some of the glass jars I used for mixing sprays and fertilizers found a home in it, their lids rusted tight to the glass, filled with the residues of now unidentifiable liquids. A cracked and crumbling stack of small green plastic pots that had held plants from the nursery dribbled ancient potting soil over the items beneath. Drain pipe caps. Odd screws and bolts. A half-empty tin of paint thinner. Unidentifiable bits of metal and plastic.
Emptying the box had long been on my list of things to do. It was never the top priority, however, and it wasn’t until several months after that task first appeared on the list that I got around to it. When I was eating breakfast and contemplating my tasks for that day, it popped into my mind as something I needed to tackle. As a precaution against exposing myself to caustic liquids or poisons, I wore rubber gloves. I put a double layer of liners in the bin and dragged it over to the door of the shed. I hauled the box out and began carefully lifting each item out. Most of the items were quickly thrown away. There were a few useful items—a packet of rubber washers, for example—and those I disciplined myself to stow where I could find them if I needed them.
The bottle was at the bottom of the box. It wasn’t large—little more than three inches tall. It appeared to be made of delicate glass coated with a silvery film. It was shaped like a bottle gourd, with a narrow ring just above the centre dividing the bottle into two bulbs, the lower one larger than the upper. A small silver chain around the neck of the bottle was attached to a ruby-red stopper. By all rights, the bottle should have been crushed by the weight of the trash above it. Oddly enough, unlike the other items in the box, the bottle was clean. When I lifted it out of the box, the stopper caught the light and glowed red.
I held it up and turned it slowly. A distorted version of my eyes and face was reflected back at me. There were no flaws or imperfections in the surface. The silver coating did not vary in colour or apparent thickness. There were no wrinkles or waves in it. The bottle weighed only a few ounces. It was warm to the touch, noticeably warm. I detected a faint odour of sandalwood, and my first—unlikely—thought was that it was a scent bottle deposited by a mysterious passer-by in the habit of sneaking into garden sheds and leaving strange objects to mystify the householder. I knew that I hadn’t put it there. As far as I could tell, none of the items above it in the box had been disturbed since I had put them there in the months and years that the box had sat in the shed.
I hardly knew what to do with it. The bottle was far too good to throw away. Certainly it didn’t belong in the garden shed, but it was not the sort of object that appeals to me as a decoration. It wasn’t something I would place with the other bits of flotsam that had drifted onto the mantel of the sitting room fireplace. In the end I decided to give it to my niece, and I stuck it in my shirt pocket while I finished the rest of the work in the garden.
After a few minutes, I became aware of a hot area over my chest. It was the bottle. Not burning hot, but more than ordinary warmth, rather like putting on a piece of clothing fresh from the dryer. I took the bottle out of my pocket and carried it into the house and left it on a kitchen counter. I went back into the garden—the boxwood needed to be trimmed. But after a few minutes working on the hedge, I was plagued by the feeling that I had left something undone. It was like the nagging sensation you get when you drive away from the house and can’t remember if you unplugged the kettle or locked the backdoor.
I’m the sort of obsessive-compulsive that pats his pockets ten times on the way to the airport to make sure that I have my passport and tickets. I know that I have them, but I can’t stop myself from checking. I knew that the kettle was unplugged and that nothing was about to boil over on the burner, but I also knew from experience that I would not rest until I had looked. So I set the clippers down and walked back into the house. Of course, there was nothing.
The bottle, however, had moved. It was now standing upright on the kitchen table. Right in the centre of a shaft of light coming through the window. The silver surface refracted the light and sent it flying around the kitchen in a cacophony of colour. The ruby stopper glowed in the sunlight. The room smelled strongly of sandalwood.
Someone, I suspected, was playing games with me. I don’t know who I expected to answer, but I called out, ‘Hallo. Is anyone there?’ Silence was my only answer. I suddenly felt foolish. Did I really expect a thief or prankster to answer me? I had simply forgotten where I had laid the bottle, and the shiny surface and the sunlight were responsible for the glow in the kitchen. It was just simple physics or optics or some such natural phenomenon.
I grasped the bottle by the stopper, intending to put it in a drawer. The stopper came off in my hands. A thin plume of vapour began drifting out of the bottle, whirling slowly at first and then faster and faster. More and more smoke poured from the bottle. It grew so thick that I could see only a few inches in front of my face. The odour of sandalwood grew sharper and sharper, and the temperature rose higher and higher. It was like being inside a gigantic burning stick of incense.
Perfume has always made my eyes water, and my nose run. This time the smell was so strong that I sneezed prodigiously several times. I don’t know if that was why the smoke began to coalesce and solidify or it was simply a matter of coincidence. Within a matter of seconds, however, a human-shaped form began to appear in my kitchen.
‘Might I trouble you for a glass of water? This apparitioning always leaves me parched.’
The being who addressed me was decidedly exotic. He was naked, except for a dazzlingly white turban, with a large ruby in the front. He stood perhaps five feet tall, even including the turban. He appeared to be about thirty–forty years old. His body was very well formed. Even in my surprised state, I noted the well-defined muscles. His hairless body was tanned a rich brown. His most startling feature, however, was his eyes. They were the colour of lapis lazuli, an intense deep blue with streaks of gold in them.
‘Of course, tap or bottled?’ I was so stunned by the sudden appearance of the spirit that it didn’t occur to ask him what he was doing in my kitchen.
‘Tap is fine.’
I filled a glass with cold water and handed it to him. He emptied it in one gulp and handed the glass back to me.
‘Thank you. That was most kind.’ He looked around the kitchen, examining the appliances. ‘Things have changed since my last appearance. There were fewer electrical appliances in the 1960s. One reads about progress, of course, but one needs to see it for oneself to appreciate it. But is the style now to keep kitchens so dirty?’
‘No. The smoke . . .’ I gestured at the bottle.
‘Oh, my dear fellow, I am so sorry. Sometimes when decades have passed since the last time the bottle was opened, dust builds up in the neck. Let me clean this for you.’ He waved a hand. Magically the grime disappeared from every surface. My kitchen had never been so clean.
‘Now, I suppose we should get down to business.’ He smiled at me. ‘Do you know who I am?’
‘Well, you appear to be a genie, and I have released you from your bottle.’
‘I prefer the term “djinn”. But, yes, you have released me from the bottle, and now I have to reward you with three wishes.’
‘So all the tales of djinn bottles are true?’
‘Oh, please, Mr Pas, “djinn bottles”? You can’t imagine how many times I’ve heard that one. That and “djinn joints” and “djinnger beer” and “djinn rummy”.’
‘How do you know my name?’
‘I had a full dossier on you before I shifted the bottle to that box last night.’ The djinn looked exceedingly smug.
‘Why didn’t you just put the bottle on the table? It would have meant less work.’
‘That box was long overdue for a cleaning. I just provided an incentive for you to do so.’
‘You’re beginning to sound like my mother. And how was I to know to clean out the box? The bottle could have been in there for months before I got around to cleaning the shed.’
The djinn folded his arms across his chest and smiled enigmatically. ‘I can’t reveal my secrets.’
‘I should think it would have been simpler just to appear before me. Why go through all this rigmarole?’
‘Tradition, Mr Pas. Tradition. The djinn appears in a cloud of smoke from the bottle and grants three wishes. If I just popped into view while you were reading the newspaper, no smoke, no fanfare, you would have thought you were hallucinating and run to a doctor. Instead, you find a mysterious bottle with odd properties. You open it. Billows of smoke. Clouds of incense. A handsome stranger. What else could he be but a djinn about to grant you three wishes? We’re just observing narrative tradition here. You’ve been conditioned to accept me as real. I’m within your horizons of expectations.’
‘I still may see the doctor this morning. I’m still not sure that you’re real. I do have an overactive imagination.’
I swear the creature smirked at me. He was very cocksure. If he were an hallucination, however, I will say that my ability to envision muscular definition was definitely improving.
He cleared his throat. ‘Well, we should proceed to the main business. You get three wishes and only three, no more. You can’t wish for more wishes. Nor can you wish for longer life for yourself or anyone. The length of everyone’s life is already set. I can’t change that. And they have to be serious wishes for major things. I don’t do raspberry lollipops, no matter how much you may plead for one. I’m not a trickster, trying to get you to say “I wish” and waste a wish on some trivial matter. And you can’t wish for me to be gone as one of your three wishes. You get three wishes. That’s all, but you have to take them. I’m not leaving until I’ve granted you three wishes.’
‘You’re not going to fool me with that. I know that no matter what I wish for, you’ll twist the request and make things worse than they are.’
‘Please, Mr Pas. And you a writer. What kind of a three-wishes narrative would it be if there were no irony? That’s the whole point of the stories that humans write. A hungry man wishes for a pot that always full of food. He gets the pot, but the food is inedible. They’re stories with a built-in moral. The truth is that I deliver what the human wishes for, no more and no less. I don’t do irony. The pot will always be filled with tasty, nutritious food, and each day I supply a new variety of the recommended five fruits and vegetables. What would I gain by causing you misery? Do you think that would please me? I’m an immortal being. I can get anything I want. What joy would I get out of harming a transient, powerless creature such as yourself? My only purpose is to bring joy to human beings. Enough chit-chat. Now make a wish or I’ll change you into an octopus until you do.’
He was growing quite heated on the subject. He stomped around the kitchen pulling open drawers and examining the contents and peeking into cupboards.
‘Could I help you find something? Are you hungry? I could make you a sandwich.’
In answer he pointed to the table. There was a flash of light and platters piled with sandwiches appeared. There must have been five hundred of them. He offered me a plate of what appeared to be smoked salmon and cucumber on wholemeal bread.
‘Oh, thank you. I was feeling a bit peckish.’ I picked up the topmost one and took a bite. ‘Oh, these are quite good. Make them yourself or do you have them catered?’
‘You are becoming aggravating. If you don’t stop, I may have to take steps. Three wishes. Get to them.’ He glared at me.
His tough-guy act would have been more effective had he been taller and more imposing. He was quite cute, and somehow that didn’t seem threatening. Time was passing, however, and I did have work to do. I had to give him three wishes if only to get him out of my life.
‘Well, let me think.’ I tapped my lips with a forefinger in a mimicry of deep thought. ‘I should like my parents and my sister and her husband to pass the remainder of their lives in excellent mental and physical health. That’s my first wish.’
‘Don’t you want to include yourself in this wish?’ He appeared concerned on my behalf.
‘No, I don’t think so. I should like to experience everything that is to come. If I understood you correctly, such things are fated unless you intervene.’ He nodded. ‘Well, my parents and my sister and her husband have already suffered from poor physical health. And my parents and my brother-in-law sometimes say things that make one wonder about their mental health. So they have already experienced such things. I am not robbing them of anything by wishing only the best of health in the future.’
‘I could still include you. There’s no extra charge.’
‘Thank you, but no. I’ll take my chances.’
He closed his eyes and held out his arms in front of himself. He clasped his hands together tightly. His body briefly glowed a golden colour. Then he smiled to himself and opened his eyes. ‘All done. Lifetimes of excellent physical and mental health for your parents and your sister and brother-in-law. Now, for your second wish.’
‘There is a young man. I don’t know his name. I used to see him on the bus occasionally before I retired.’
‘Hold on. Let me touch your head for a second. Just above the right ear.’ He held up an arm. I had to bend over so that he could reach the area he wanted. His fingers were in contact with my scalp for only a second or two, but the warmth of his touch lingered. It felt very pleasant, I must admit.
‘Is this the lad you have in mind?’
A small figure stood on his hand. It was quite perfect in every detail.
‘Yes, that’s him. He’s been sort of a muse errant and wandered in and out of several of my stories.’
‘And now you want him for yourself.’
‘No, not at all. I don’t even want to know his name or anything else about him. I should simply like for him to attain whatever will make him happy. Notice that I said “attain,” not “obtain”. He should have to work to get what he wants. Well, not have to work too hard, but enough to make him appreciate the results.’
‘And will you want progress reports?’
‘No, nothing of the sort. I should simply like your assurance that you will carry out my request. If the two of us meet, fine. But you are not to give that meeting a push. That is my second wish.’
‘But why this man?’
‘Because he smiled at me one day.’
‘You reward him for a smile? You are a strange person, Mr Pas. You spend your wishes on other people.’ He closed his eyes again and repeated the same sequence of actions as before. ‘There. That’s all done. And now your third wish.’
‘This power to grant wishes on others’ behalf is very satisfying. Do you find it so?’
‘It has its compensations.’
‘Perhaps if you have time someday, you could stop by and tell me about your experiences.’
‘Is that your third wish?’
‘No. Simply a friendly gesture. My third wish is also for someone else.’
‘Nothing for yourself?’
‘Not directly. Only if the satisfaction of doing a good deed for someone else counts as being done for myself. A sort of selfish altruism.’
‘I await your command, Mr Pas.’
‘I should like to have the power to grant you three wishes, with the same stipulations you applied to my three wishes. That is my third wish.’
The djinn looked at me quizzically. ‘Now that is unique in my experience. No one has ever asked for that before.’
‘That is why I wished for that power. You can be said to be an expert in wishes. How many wishes have you fulfilled in your lifetime? Hundreds? Thousands?’
‘Several thousand at least.’
‘And are you aware of the outcomes of these wishes?’
‘Yes. As soon as the wish is granted, I know how it will turn out.’
‘Then, I am curious what an expert would wish for. Can you grant my wish?’
The djinn nodded. ‘Oh, easily. But you do understand that most people ask for wealth, health, and sex, don’t you? Those are the three most common wishes. I am immortal, and health is irrelevant to me. Only sixty-four djinn were created. There can never be more of us, or fewer for that matter. We have no need of sex, either for procreation or recreation. As for wealth, I can create whatever I need. I have never wanted for anything. I shall have to devote some thought to the matter.’
‘You can take your time and get back to me when you have decided. And I can go back to trimming the shrubberies.’
‘I would rather pass the time with you while I decide on my wishes, but I would prefer more comfortable surroundings than this.’ He gestured at the bottle. ‘I live in a houseboat floating on a lake. Perhaps you would like to join me there. It is very pleasant.’
‘I don’t see how you fit in the bottle, let alone the both of us.’
‘And you call yourself a Doctor Who fan, Mr Pas. The bottle is like the Tardis, bigger on the inside than on the outside. Now if you will close your eyes and not open them until I tell you to.’
I did as the djinn asked. I felt a tingling in my earlobes, and my body was squeezed from all sides, rather as if the air had grown denser. Then the pressure ceased. ‘You may open your eyes now. What do you think of David Tennant’s successor, by the way?’
‘Poor lad. He’ll have to be twice as good as Tennant to satisfy the Doctor Who fans.’
‘I fear you may be right. I may appear to him next. Or perhaps to the producers. They will have more interest in his success.’
I found myself in a room filled with pillows of all shapes and sizes and colours. The room was open on all sides. Slender pillars supported a canopy of silk whose colour shifted through all the hues of the spectrum as I looked at it. The room floated on a lake of deep blue. Mountains surrounded the lake on all sides. The air seemed to be new made. From somewhere came the faint sound of music. When I tried to listen to it, it faded from my senses, but when I turned away, it was there.
‘This is beautiful.’
‘Yes.’ The djinn reclined on his side facing me, his right hand supporting his head, with his left leg bent at the knee and his other arm resting on it. He patted a pillow beside himself. ‘Make yourself comfortable. We may be here a while.’
‘Is this one of those places where a day is a hundred years on the outside?’ I sat down on a pillow near him.
‘It is a place outside time. I can return you to any time, or for that matter place, I choose when I send you back to your universe. But don’t worry. You will find yourself in your kitchen one second after you left it, Mr Pas.’
‘Please call me Nex. What should I call you?’
‘My name is a secret known only to myself. Why don’t you call me Sam?’
‘Yes, I rather fancy it. Sam—it has a ring of sturdiness and trustworthiness, don’t you think? Would you like something to drink?’ A small table holding a glass of clear liquid appeared at my side. ‘I’m sorry I can offer you nothing alcoholic. It is against my religion. But I think you will find this quite refreshing.’
I took a cautious sip. The liquid seemed to flow into my tongue. It was like a wave of good feeling and health spreading throughout my entire body. ‘What is this? The nectar of the gods?’
‘Yes, Hera gave me her recipe, but I’ve added a few touches of my own. I’m rather proud of it.’ He massaged the back of his neck. ‘It’s giving me a crick to stare up at you. Let me adjust these pillows.’
The pillows beneath him grew plumper, and the djinn rose until his head was level with mine. He also drifted closer, until we were only a few inches apart.
‘Your eyes are really most extraordinary. They are the colour of lapis lazuli. They are as beautiful as the name itself. Lapis lazuli. The stone of Lazul. I’ve never thought about it before, but is Lazul a place?’
‘Yes. It’s in Afghanistan. It looks like this.’
A miniature village appeared in the air between us.
‘A rather dismal place to produce such beauty.’
‘Silk comes from caterpillars, Nex. Beauty from ugly things. But you were speaking of my eyes.’
‘They are incredible.’
‘Do you find them attractive?’ His eyelids drifted shut and then languorously opened part way.
‘Are you trying to seduce me?’ I laughed and set up straighter.
‘I’m not sure. I think I just want you to like me. As I said, I have no need of sex. Indeed I cannot feel any of the sensations that you humans apparently feel. I know that you become aroused by sight and touch and smell and a dozen other sensations, but I have no understanding of what it feels like to be stirred by one’s senses. If I appear to be seducing you, I am just acting. The rewards of a successful seduction would have no meaning to me.’
‘Especially if you seduce me. There are others far more desirable than I.’
‘There, too, I understand that you do not fulfil the usual human criteria of desirability, but those are immaterial to me. You are here. I would seduce you if I could enjoy the pleasures of sex.’
‘Perhaps that’s what you should wish for—the ability to feel what a human feels. It might help you understand why human wishes so often involve sex.’
‘You mean, purely as a means of making myself a better grantor of wishes?’
‘Yes, for educational purposes only.’
‘You’re having me on, aren’t you?’
‘A bit, yes. But are you tempted?’
‘Why not? I will put a time limit on the wish, however. I will wish to be able to have the senses of a human for the next, oh, shall we say, the next four hours.’
‘Why put a time limit on the wish?’
‘As you pointed out, I am an expert on wishing. Even the most wonderful dream can pall and become tiresome if continued for too long. This way, the wish will serve your “educational purposes” and perhaps give me something to remember fondly.’
‘What do I do?’
‘Close your eyes, clasp your hands together tightly, and imagine the result you want.’
I did as the djinn said. For a brief moment, I felt a tingling in my hands.
‘Don’t open your eyes just yet. Wait until I tell you.’
The djinn touched my face. His fingers felt cool and smooth as he explored my face, along the line of my jaw, the curve of my eyebrows, across my eyelids, and then the gentlest stroking of the eyelashes and finally my lips. ‘Each part feels so different. Firm and soft. Warm, cool. Smooth, rough. I can feel the blood beating beneath your skin. How does this feel to you?’
‘Elegant.’ That was the first word that popped into my mind. Oddly enough, it was an apt description of his touch. ‘Let me show you how it feels. Close your eyes.’ I touched his face as he had touched mine. When I reached his lips, he gasped and then laughed.
‘Oh, is that why humans love to kiss?’
‘Would you like to experience that?’
‘In a moment. I have four hours. I do not wish to rush them. Introduce me to these experiences slowly.’
‘It’s your wish. I’m here simply to help you achieve it.’
‘There is one thing. We seem to be mismatched in size. Wouldn’t this be better if we were the same height?’
‘Not necessarily. That really doesn’t matter.’
‘Then if it doesn’t matter, I think I would like to be bigger. I will make that my second wish. I wish to be a bit taller than you, with everything in proportion to the height. I could also wish to look like your friend from the bus. Would you like that?’
My ‘no’ was very decisive. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to shout. That was rude of me. I know you mean well, but the point of the man on the bus is that I will never meet him. He can be whatever I want. But if I meet him in person, then he will be what he is, and he will no longer be something I can weave a fantasy around.’
‘And fantasies and unfulfilled desires are important to you?’
‘They are the stuff of narrative. The wishes that must never be realised. How many of the humans to whom you have granted three wishes have been satisfied in the end?’
‘Some. More than you would be willing to credit, I think. But perhaps they were not as addicted as you to stories. They were willing to let the world satisfy their desires. But I will honour your vision. My second wish is that I be taller than you, with all the body in proportion to the height, for whatever remains of the four hours allotted to my first wish. Now clasp your hands in front of you, close your eyes, and think about my wish.’
I did as the djinn instructed. I swear I could feel him growing. When I closed my eyes, our heads were roughly even and his toes were in the vicinity of my knees. And then I became aware that his body had grown longer than mine and that his body was much bigger.
‘There. What do you think?’
I opened my eyes. The djinn’s shoulder blocked my view of the lake outside. Or perhaps it was his eyes. Something was concentrating my attention on him to the exclusion of all else.
If I had greater powers of description, I might be able to convey the splendour of the next three and a half hours. But even if I could describe the events that followed, I don’t think I would. All I will say is that should a djinn with eyes the colour of lapis lazuli ever offer you three wishes, make one of them a wish for four intimate hours with him.
‘The time is almost up.’ The djinn sighed with contentment.
‘Did you enjoy the experience?’
‘Yes. You’re very skilled.’
‘Since I am your first lover, you have no basis for comparison.’
‘I wish to have none. It could never be this wonderful again.’
His eyes twinkled. ‘I just realised that I am no longer a virgin. I feel quite odd. After all this time to lose something so trifling in such a wonderful way.’
I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. ‘Surely you would make the Guinness Book of Records. Oldest age at loss of virginity. How old are you?’
‘I am coeval with time itself. I stopped keeping track of my birthdays aeons ago. Oh, I believe I am beginning to revert to my former size.’
He was indeed. ‘You could wish to stay the same size. You still have one wish left.’
‘No, this body has served its purpose. It would be inconvenient to be that large. I would have to raise the roof and enlarge the doorways.’
‘You still have your third wish.’
The djinn rolled onto his back and placed his hands behind his head, contemplating the ceiling. ‘Your young man on the bus—will you write more stories about him?’
‘Perhaps. I don’t know. I suspect I will. I have jotted a few notes about possible stories involving him in my ideas file. Why do you ask?’
‘He will remain an object of desire and inspire more narratives?’
‘Today we rewrote a narrative, didn’t we? The human who gave a djinn three wishes. It has been a most unusual morning for me. An adventure. I haven’t had an adventure in ages. I’m very grateful to you for supplying that.’
‘Well, you were the one who rewrote the narrative. All I did was give you the wishes. It was your story. I was just along for the ride.’
‘No, you played a large role in the formation of this story. It came from your mind. I added a few details here and there, but it came from your imagination, from up here.’ He touched my forehead. ‘Would you mind if I stop by to see you from time to time? We could talk for a while. I could tell you where I have been, what I have doing, show you what I have seen. And you could tell me what you have been up to. We could sit in your garden and enjoy the day.’
‘I should like that very much.’
‘Then that is my third wish.’
‘But you don’t need to wish for that. You could have that without wishing for it.’
‘The last wish should always be for something valuable. Now it is time for you to return. We shall meet again soon.’
The next instant I was standing in my kitchen. The mid-morning sun slanted through the slats of the window shade. My house was silent. Nothing remained of my encounter with the djinn with eyes the colour of lapis lazuli except the story we had found.