My slumber ends. The muffled voices must mean my confinement found a new owner. I don’t know how much time has passed since the last; there is no time, and no light or darkness here, only the slumber, until I’m awoken again.
“…for sale. Where did you get it?”
The voice sounds wavering, thin, and old. Female. Another female voice responds, high-pitched, energetic, younger.
“I think it belonged to my great-aunt on my mother’s side. Been in the attic for ages. Mom would like ten dollars for it.”
The unit of time means as little to me as the implied coin.
“That sounds like a fine deal,” the older voice says. “It needs a bit of a polish, but nothing some elbow grease and a good cloth can’t handle. Maybe there’s even a genie inside that lamp who will grant me a wish.”
Both voices laugh, the sound reverberating as if they’re underwater. A spark lights the darkness, but not enough to summon me yet.
“Thank you, Mrs. Brown. Have a great day!” The youthful voice again.
“You too, dear. And say hello to your mother for me, will you?”
“Let’s see if we can’t get you to shine… Where did I put my glasses? I can’t tell if that’s tin or bronze underneath all that grime—”
There’s an explosion behind my eyes as my shackles rip apart. I experienced this feeling many times before, and each time the freedom tastes sweeter than anything else in all the worlds. The bright light recedes, and a room comes into focus. It is large but cramped. Wildly patterned chairs and cushions line the walls and dark wood tables crowd the floor, stacked with all sorts of trinkets. Cluttered in between are papers, porcelain dishes, and a crooked shelf with books. Dozens of framed photos, some in black and white, hang from the yellowed wallpaper, each depicting one or several humans.
In the middle of this chaos stands an old woman, her gray hair in an elegant bun, two knitting needles sticking out on either side. She wears a long, green dress that reaches almost to the floor and a thick woolen vest. A pair of reading glasses hangs on a small chain around her neck. She holds an ancient oriental oil lamp in her hands; my home, my prison. Before her eyes fall on me, I transform into a human shape to not frighten her. My skin is dark brown with a faint red shimmer, my clothes probably a century too old.
“Oh, my…” Mrs. Brown says when she looks at me.
That’s my cue.
“I am the genie of the lamp. You have freed me, mortal; therefore, I grant you three wishes. How can I be of service?”
I have recited this phrase so often that it has lost all meaning to me. However, things must be done a certain way, and it is my duty to inform mortals of the gifts I grant them.
The old lady stares at me as if she doesn’t comprehend. Maybe she is hard of hearing. I clear my throat and repeat myself, a little louder:
“I am the genie of the lamp. You have freed me, mortal; therefore—”
“Matthew? Is that you?”
I blink in confusion. Humans had different reactions to my presence. Some wanted their wishes granted immediately, others asked about details of the contract or tried to haggle for more wishes. But all of them recognized me for what I am. While I am speechless, the old woman continues.
“Good that you’re here! The light in the kitchen has been flickering for weeks. Could you change the bulb for me?”
My brief stupor ends. No matter who this woman thinks I am, granting wishes is what I do.
“An unusual wish, but I will do as you command,” I say and get to work.
“I’ll fetch you a slice of cheesecake when you’re done,” she calls after me. “I made it yesterday, your favorite. Such a coincidence, isn’t it? As if I knew you were coming.”
“Thank you,” I say from the kitchen while I summon a new light bulb, exactly like the one flickering in the hanging lamp. I do like a good cake.
“Oh, could you also fix the leak in the sink while you’re at it?” Mrs. Brown asks from the other room.
“Of course, but that will cost you another wish,” I clarify.
“Yes, yes,” she agrees. “Let me put the kettle on for some tea.”
After I am done with my duties, we sit down at her kitchen table. It feels smaller than it is with all the pots and plants and knitting projects scattered on it. There is, however, enough space for our two plates of cheesecake and cups of steaming, sugary tea. The cake is delicious. Mrs. Brown doesn’t touch her piece and offers it to me after I’m done with mine.
She finishes her tea and shuffles into the living room, only to return moments later carrying an old photograph. The wooden frame is greasy and worn in places, as if someone touched it many times over many years. In the photograph stands a young human male, looking straight into the camera and giving a salute. His clothes are as impeccable as his posture and clenched jaw.
“Matthew, do you remember this photo? It’s from the day you left for the army. We were so proud when they sent you to the other end of the world. Our little Matthew, defending kin and country. They sent us your badge and a medal ten months later. Did you know that? Said something about a land mine and a heroic sacrifice. Your mother couldn’t stop weeping, but I always knew you’d come back. I felt it in my bones.”
She blinks away the tears that gathered in the wrinkled corners of her eyes. Her glasses still hang from her neck, unused.
“But I’m rambling. Are you done with your cake?”
“Yes, thank you, it was delightful,” I respond politely. “Do you have another wish?”
“Well, since you asked, you could rake the leaves in the garden,” she says after a moment of deliberation. “I fear the mice will nest in them soon.”
“If that is your wish, I will oblige. But this will be your third and final wish. Are you sure this is what you wish for?”
It is not a requirement to give mortals such a warning, but I have always done it this way. Many waste their first two wishes on something they don’t need, but the third wish is special. It is their last chance to change their lives.
The old woman looks at me.
“Oh, Matthew,” she says, her voice breaking. “My only wish would be that you’re really here…”
Time stretches while I am torn between my duty and the limits of my magic. I cannot bring back the dead. Neither do I want to see her suffer.
And a wish is a wish.
I alter my appearance once more to look exactly like the youth in the photograph, a perfect replica. Only the clothes I change, from the freshly pressed uniform to comfortable slacks, suited for garden work in autumn. When my transformation is complete, the woman’s eyes brighten, and she smiles.
“Now, where do you keep the garden tools, grandma?” I ask.
A wish is a wish.
This story previously appeared in the anthology What You Wish For: 5 Fantastical Short Stories.
Edited by Marie Ginga
S.J.C. Schreiber (she/her) lives with the elves and trolls (and her cats and horses) in Iceland, the perfect setting to write magical stories where fantasy collides with reality. Her work appears in various magazines and anthologies, two self-published ebooks, and was shortlisted in the Furious Fiction Contest by the Australian Writers’ Centre. More information can be found on her author website at S.J.C. Schreiber.