There’s the Rub

This selection is part of NonBinary Review Issue #6: 1001 Arabian Nights. Get NonBinary Review #6 from the Zoetic Press website. 

After the last few centuries, I can tell you that people don’t get irony. Trust me.

At least, they don’t get ironic punishment. I’ve warned them every single time, and they never quite get that the whole thing’s just a riddle. I’ve been doing the spiel a long time, so I’ve got it down pretty pat. It usually goes something like this:

“I am the djinn of the lamp. I will grant you three wishes. Anything you want, but there are conditions. Three wishes means three wishes. No wishing for more wishes. And you should know that whatever you wish for cannot be undone without using up another wish.”

That happens a lot. People burn the first two more often than you’d think.

I’ve had to do the same basic speech in dozens of languages. From Aramaic to Arabic, Punic to Portuguese. It’s an occupational hazard, since a lot of my temporary masters want to travel as one of their wishes. Getting stuck in the lamp for years at a time is no picnic, but it is one way to see a lot of the world.

I’ve been in this racket so long that I honestly can’t remember which one was my first gig. After a few hundred short-term masters, they all kind of run together, you know? Some were actually very nice, where I kind of felt bad about their comeuppance. Some were just jerks from day one, the type who deserved whatever they got. Truth told, most fell squarely in between, just normal people who wholly corrupted themselves with their choice of wishes.

The one thing I’ve learned above all else is that people never solve the riddle. I don’t think they even get that it’s supposed to be a riddle. It’s really not that hard, but they always overthink things.

Take the money. That’s a popular choice; people almost always ask for money. When they ask for a specific amount, say a million dollars, all you have to do is cause some inflation so the money’s not worth what they thought. Or you just make sure their wants will overtake their means, so the money makes them miserable. If they just wish to be rich, you can put stuff in motion to mess up other aspects of their lives.

Really, there’s a few standard wishes everyone makes. Money, of course. We covered that. Love’s a big one too, but nobody ever wishes for their actual, existing love to go on for life. The ones who already have real love always take it for granted. They either want someone to fall in love with them – usually someone they don’t know nearly as well as they think they do, or who they know would never like them otherwise – or they wish for somebody specific to marry them. Course, they wouldn’t need to waste a wish on that if they could get the girl (or the guy, but usually the girl) to marry them without it, so they’re never a good fit. Oh, power, that’s another popular choice. They ask to be king or president or kaiser. Lately, what’s getting more common is wanting to be in charge of a particular company or get some particular job. What they don’t get is that once you start at the top, without all the skills and know-how you pick up along the way there, it’s really easy to fall. Fame’s getting big too, but they keep asking for fame itself – which gets old really fast and gets exhausting. You’d think they’d figure it out.

Some wish for more mundane things. It’s a lot less greedy, but the ones making fleeting wishes always regret later that they used them up on small stuff. You know what I mean. A trip, or some object they want to own. It used to be exotic animals or spices, but these days it’s usually a car or a gadget. You do get the people who want the impossible. To live forever, to never have their bodies change, to fly or become invisible. Now, those you have to grant – I should mention, bringing the dead back to life is the one thing you have to tell them you can’t do – but you do it by playing with semantics. You can’t make someone literally invisible, but you can make it so nobody notices them anymore, and that’ll drive them nuts eventually. They want immortality, you devise some way they become a famous punchline, famous enough that their name lives on once they die. You get the idea. Sometimes they ask for something noble like world peace, but they never specify how long it has to last. The fun of the job – and, really, the key to it all – is knowing how to play the technicalities and loopholes.

I mentioned earlier that the whole thing’s a riddle. And it is, because there is one right group of three wishes. The order doesn’t matter, and the wording can vary. I actually like to grant those three, without ploys or ruses or anything like that. All they need to do is wish for a healthy life, wish to be happy, and wish that the people they care about get the same. That’s all they really need, and it’s what they never get. The money, the forced love, the dream jobs – they’re all attempts to be happy, but people get hung up on the means and lose sight of the goal. Always.

Genuinely, I have to say it feels good to grant people a healthy, happy life, and everyone feels a little satisfaction when someone solves a tough riddle they came up with. Well, I assume it feels good. It’s really a shame that, in all the centuries I’ve been doing this, nobody’s ever gotten it right.

Sorry you had to waste your last wish on the secret to how the whole thing works. Should have thought of it earlier.

Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction is published in the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row literary journal and Steam Ticket Third Coast Review. He is also the author of non-fiction books including The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias (Fall River Press, 2011), Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries (Zest Books, 2015), and a civics book coming in spring 2016. He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.