The Artist’s Wish – short story, 11 July 2016

Once there was an artist who lived on his own by the bay. He painted and played piano, the violin and wrote poetry, plays and novels. Yet none were good, or so he thought, and so everyone seemed to think. And, frustrated, he gave it up and went to war. After many years away from home, the war ended and he was discharged. Returning home by boat, with friends, they found a strange man on a lifeboat. His accent was peculiar and his manner of dress out of fashion by some hundred years. Gradually he gained their trust and friendship and revealed himself to be a genie. His story was most interesting, as they had all heard the story of a genie’s lamp, or some variation, and as the self-proclaimed genie pointed out, in all those tales, what did they ever really know about the genie, the magician who granted them fortune and fame?

The genie’s story was remarkable, the most remarkable of tales:

You’ve all heard the stories, the tales of princes and their wishes, and the genie who is there to grant them, but what of the genie, then? Where is he from, and how did he become such a magician? A genie is born like other men, and is not advised on what his powers are or where they come from, what they’re for and what he’s allowed to do until he comes of age and finds, to his surprise, he wasn’t unique among the people in his world: there is a race of genies, invisible but parallel to our own world, and although each is born with those abilities, not all are allowed into our own world; even then they must obey the rules, rules of an ancient order, of sorcerers, magicians capable of turning picnic baskets into turtle doves, clay into a sparrow capable of flight.

When you apply to travel between the worlds, in order to grant wishes or provide favor, you have to learn very important rules and why such rules exist. To break any of these leads to the most dramatic of punishments; as a genie and his world are immortal, and age not tallied after thousands, those who grant another being with any power, any luxury or skill, any advantage allowing them to subject others of their kind to loss or slavery, are kept in glass prisons, lamps most often, and some, more powerful than others, rebel against control and with others like them escape into the human world – with agendas sometimes noble, sometimes selfish, sometimes peaceful, sometimes most terrible.

A genie can be good. A genie can be evil. Unique to their race of all existing creatures is the way their goodness or wickedness is judged: it is judged by the choices of those whom they have gifted abilities large or small. They are judged by the behavior of those they serve.

Genies are like people but unlike anything else; the extent of their likeness aiding only their ability to blend in without being noticed when they pass between the worlds, they are told of those like them who, intentionally or not, granted wishes – which, though innocent it seemed, led to the most terrible of actions. And like people genies have role models and examples to follow and revere, and examples to learn from but not follow. The role model, the ideal of a perfect genie, was Sayim. All are told of his perfect judgment, his accomplishments and his wisdom. And like people, who are taught and become teachers, those too exist in parallel.

Sayim had granted wishes to the greatest figures in human history as well as smaller dreamers, most unaware of what Sayim had granted. The three wishes rule is not arbitrary; three is the number that best allows for judgment and concentration. If a wish, the first that is, goes wrong, the wishmaker thinks how best to rephrase or change the wish to make it work. The second wish is a reflection of their revision, a more thought-out request, more concise and practical, more to the point of their intention and desire. If the second fails, the third is there for what the person knows will be the last chance to get it right and, humbled by two failures, usually – through such failure – settles on what they’ve learned to be more important than the pettiness of fame and riches, the most obvious of wishes. The hope is that wisdom will lead to better choices and most often this is indeed what happens.

Impatient, the captain interrupted, asking: ‘Well tell us then, if Sayim is the example of what is good, what then is an example of bad?’

And the genie told him of Sayim’s twin, Miyar, and his crimes. The story of the brothers, said the genie, may have been true, it may just be a story, but it informed each generation of the rewards and punishments which may befall a genie if he breaks the rules, if he grants unnatural powers to the selfish and unscrupulous. Miyar believed that everyone’s dream should be assisted, nurtured, and granted; Sayim believed that the dream of some could, if fulfilled, destroy the dreams of others and, most importantly, the wishmaker should not be allowed to better himself at the expense of others. And Sayim believed that the point of wishing wasn’t to be relied upon to solve all troubles, that men and women should not rely upon some genie someday to help them through whatever despair and misfortune that may befall them and, if it were known, if it was believed that, someday, all wishes and all dreams would come true, self-improvement, the labour which refines and makes a person who they are would be lost, for good or ill, and that striving, however painful, was necessary and with it, even suffering – each was a character defining force that should not be changed.

And those on the boat thought for a moment of this idea; a race believed, embodied by this figure, that some wishes should not be granted, some dreams should be unfulfilled, for a purpose even. Some thought that this seemed fair and others, now collected in their disagreement, thought that Sayim was cruel and not Miyar and asked of Miyar, What were his crimes? Now all intrigued by the story of the drifter. A sense of division had arisen among the sailors, a characteristic that split the crew into groups: the first mate with two men, one old and one younger; the captain with a man of advanced years, a slightly older man, and a relatively young soldier. The artist alone was undecided.

2

The story is different in each tale, said the genie of the crime, but each case was similar in how small each request granted seemed to be.

In one of the tales, at least the most common, Miyar granted a man born blind the right to see. For his entire life had been in the dark, the light at first was most terrible, most terrifying to the man. And so he sought to bring the darkness back and in that pursuit the greatest of towers was built, on the backs of millions, for the purpose of subduing the world, to make the light less sharp, to subdue it; to blot out the sun, to blind the Sun, the moon; to use that tower and all those who propped it up, the wishmaker, with his sight, wished to stab the eyes of God, to blind the people of the Earth, to bring all into darkness with him.

Surely, said one of the men, Miyar wished to help! It’s not his fault the man had evil in him! Half agreed, the other did not. The artist was undecided. Is that the crime?

It is true, the genie said, that this may seem slight. This was not the only action taken into consideration in the Trial of Miyar and his punishment –

Then what? He wanted to help, it seems –

Again these are just stories, said the genie, and yet in all, Miyar is more than just the granter of a wish, more than the assistant there to aid, to help: Miyar believed that genies, all of us, because of magic and ability, were greater than the greatest of you and, your heroes even, had they the talent of a lesser genie, would have done much more, much faster, and much better. He gave life to the dead; he brought the dead from their tombs back to saddened widows and sad children; grateful, they lavished praise upon Miyar and he felt it proper; it was his due, his reward for doing so much for those who did so little for him. To him, he was more than equal; he could not die, he could not be killed, and since no man could wound him, harm him, hurt him – they built monuments unto him, sang of his good deeds, and turned him into more than what he was.

The artist asked, What wishes, if you know, did Sayim grant? What do you know of his goodness?

As the genie tried to answer, he was interrupted again. The others, now more convinced, said to the genie: if he could do such wonderful things, why should he not be revered? Of all the Gods to which a temple has been built, it seems to us Miyar did more. He gave the widows their beloved partners; each saddened child their father or their mother!

The others were of the opposite opinion: He didn’t do it for anyone except for himself! They said. He tried to make himself into a God by sorcery and control! He should have been punished! No one should play God!

The artist, at last, understood. Consumed by this disagreement, the rest of the crew continued this argument and, the genie being largely ignored, went silent. The ship continued along its way back to port, the crew ever more divided, until, finally, to solve, once and for all, the question of right and wrong, the captain and the first mate, leaders of the opposing opinions, approached the genie:

If you are honest then, said they, then can you grant wishes? If you are a genie, have you this power as well?

The man in his shabby dress and weird accent nodded. But, he put in, the stories omit one key feature, when they speak of genies, the wishmaker in such stories, to be honest, is never made aware whether or not his wish was granted and further, which wish among the many made by his heart it was that he received. So you may all make wishes and it is to my judgment whether I can grant such a wish or not, if I do it shall be granted immediately; there is no ritual or dance, no period of waiting.

We can all make wishes? Asked the captain and the first mate. The genie nodded. How will we know if your power is real if we are not told which you choose to grant and which you do not? And the genie said, wish for something small, something you can see – something apparent, something obvious.

So the captain with those siding with him, the first mate and his followers likewise, convinced the most, in their words, ‘expendable’ to make test wishes for them, to prove the genie’s power true or false. And so they did: an old man at the captain’s instruction said, I wish that I still had my teeth! I was hit by a shell in Verdun, and I lost all my teeth! I sure miss having steak and lamb!

In an instance, to the astonishment of all, the old man’s maw burst forth new, strong teeth, white and healthy. His visage changed to that of surprise as well, and sheer thankfulness. He thanked the genie with great fervor, with great appreciation. The genie smiled and nodded, shrugging off the adulation, the artist noticed. Seeing this, the first mate said to the oldest man among his group, This is nothing special. You can give false teeth to anyone! Let us see what power is real! He instructed the old man and so the old man approached the genie, humble and courteous, and made his wish:

Many years ago, on the front, I was wounded in my arm and since I have no feeling in it. Before the war I was a fisherman and, to make it clear, I wish to have feeling in my arm, my right that is, that I may fish with my son when I return!

Instantly the expression on the old man’s face was changed. He looked to his arm astonished and with new feeling clinched his fist. Overjoyed he thanked the genie and the genie, as with the last man, shrugged off such thanks and adulation. Seeing this, the captain and his first mate, now believing, like all the others, the genie’s story was true and, as the first wishmaker had regrown teeth to chew his food and the other feeling in his arm to fish, thought of what they wanted above of all else. The captain realized that, though he had given a man his teeth to eat, and another his arm that he might fish, these were small improvements, nothing more than what they’d already had. So the captain instructed one of his retinue to make a more bold, far reaching wish:

With his instructions, an old man, though less so than the others, asked: I’ve had a bad heart for years. I’m afraid it’ll be the death of me. It aches and keeps me up at night! I wish my heart was better!

Unlike the others, the one whose mouth burst forth with teeth and the other whose arm had feeling once more, there was no immediate reaction. The captain asked, Well? Does it hurt still? The man said that it felt better. And he was evidently happy with the wish and, seeing this take place, the first mate thought for a while before asking the younger of his two followers to make a wish to further prove the genie’s ability.

The man said to the genie, after much deliberation, I wish to know if your story is true.

A moment passed and the first mate asked, Well then? Is his story true? Is he capable of granting wishes?

Without delay the man said yes, emphatically; His story is true.

The captain had but one man left under his charge with whom to test before he wished himself and, undecided still, the artist, though he believed the story, had yet to make up his mind. He knew that even fiction could be true and, to the error of the wishmaker, he had asked if the story had been true instead of whether or not he was telling the truth. It seemed as though all others on the small ship had not thought of this and so embolded the first mate, with no one left to test the water for him, thought long and hard before he made his wish:

I wish to someday become captain of a great ship of my own!

Knowing that it would not immediately be known if it came true, the first mate, though content, was less ardent in his thanks and adulation than the men had been. The man who had his teeth once more had taken to his lunch, eating fish and biscuits and sardines from a tin. The other with feeling in his good arm for the first time since Verdun had a line over the starboard hull with a bobbing cork. The other with a less pronounced joy, but content none the less, with a less painful burden in his chest was dealing himself a game of solitaire, a cigarette in his mouth. The other man, who’d only asked of the genie’s story, was less happy than the others. Bitterness on his face, the joy once abundant among each side now gone.

3

The captain weighed each option as a captain does, weighing each and every option. The genie remained in good humour through the entire ordeal, remarkably well, the artist thought. Finally, he said,

I have lived a long and happy life. Relatively… I wish for my family to live a happy and fulfilled life.

The genie made no indication that this wish was granted, or if it would be, but for the first time throughout the ordeal he seemed, if not happy, pleasantly surprised and gladdened by this request. There was a change among the others, too, having themselves wasted wishes on themselves, or to be petty, or to help one man ask that his family be taken care of – that was transformative, more so than the story or the argument had been and it was the culmination of the affair, surprisingly; the mood had changed, the mood had changed, and it seemed to the artist then, as the day went on as all days do, that much more surreal and strange that such a thing had happened, that it had happened, and that such things could happen in this world.

The others returned to their routine, waking up and washing linen, scrubbing planks and drinking quarts of beer. The man with teeth again ate with relish, for a time, as did the other with his newly working arm did fish. Over the course of days and then weeks, fishing became another thing to do, and eating was just eating, less exciting than it had been. The man who’d been the bait, the test for authenticity, was bitter and more bitter still, withdrawing finally into his cabin. At end the artist as the shore came into view sat beside the genie and said, What do you think of people?

The genie laughed. Woefully it seemed, he provoked a laughter in the artist. The mood lightened and he thought how much he still didn’t know. He asked, Why were you adrift? Did you break the law? And no, he said, I wanted to get some sun. The artist asked, How did you – I understand, I think, how we evolved into what we are, into what we think of as being at least. But how did you come to be? Do you have parents?

You know, the genie said, the most common of all – the forbidden rule, so to speak, the no wishing for more wishes? The artist nodded. Well, sometimes, instead of wishing for more wishes, a wishmaker instead wishes for more genies!

Being aware, painfully so, of how little he knew. About his own world, about what so many strange and outrageous people had seen and done for so many strange and outrageous eons. The whole time he had deliberated, quietly but intensely, what was there he could get from a wish? He thought about the blind man who wished to blind the Earth, the story, the crimes of the shamed magician, and locked in thought he debated himself into an eternal well-known wheel. Having no friends or family, no real purpose, and leftover ambition from his days that failed him, finally he said: I wish to be the greatest artist to ever live.

4

Like the first mate wishing to be a captain and the captain’s wish for his wife and children, he knew he wouldn’t know right away, he wouldn’t know if the wish had been granted. That was fine and he felt something had changed. The ship made port and the crew disembarked with little cheer and fanfare. The artist returned to his home on his own, having asked the genie to do one thing before he left the realm of Earth, return to him, before his death. The genie agreed. They shook hands and the genie disappeared into the crowd.

The first canvas was a failure, so he thought, and he threw it away. He worked on many stories, sometimes with relish, sometimes out of habit, but always trying, ever harder, every time on more grand and ambitious themes and ideas. Each time he failed, believing less and less that the wish had been granted, and he would’ve had done better had he asked for something more attainable. He worked on, though, through doubt. Some days he lay in bed, unmoved, overwhelmed by the stacks of notes, all for different projects, different manuscripts, all in various stages of composition or revision. Some days he simply did not get out of bed, overwhelmed by the volume of notes and manuscripts he kept in a leather valise on a stand beside his bed. It had been a gift, originally beloved, now a bursting reminder of futility and failure.

One day he woke and decided to start over again. All of the painstaking notes and work and research was burnt behind his house. He used the fire to make hotdogs and sat on his backporch, watching the sun over the port. The smoke from chimneys gathered over the homes along the coast. The people, young and old, bustled about the streets just as they always had, as they always would in all likelihood. It all seemed routine until he heard a man cry,

Bon dieu!

He turned to face the sound and saw a man in motion. A wooden pier, in disrepair and falling to pieces, was not far from his bottom step. A young girl was at the end, seeming to think about going into the water, and hearing her father cry, turned and lost her footing, falling into the water. The man was hysterical. The artist stood, shocked into motion, pulled from the sullen thoughtfulness that so often dominated his way of life. In the end, the scene was brief; perhaps five minutes later, the man pulled the young girl from the shallow water onto the pier. He pulled himself onto the pier beside her, stood, and pulled her into his arms and stood. The scene was absolutely perfect: the man was handsome but disheveled, in cheap, but neat and cleanly clothes. The girl was wearing white, her head toward her father’s breast, not asleep but not quite awake. The sun behind them made such a perfect silhouette, the homes and grand designs seemingly more insignificant than these two people. And the artist hurried into his study and prepared a canvas. He coated it in rabbit-skin glue, like Rembrandt had done, and mixed his paint.

5

He drew the figures in the center, near the bottom to leave room for the sky above for contrast. The lines were hastily drawn at first, the figures more like origami shapes than people. The lines defining the shore and the soggy wood were less defined but suggested with purposeful strokes and lines. It was inspired through and through. Each line meant something, suggesting more but showing less and somehow through less showed more. The only definition was in the facial expressions, which he imagined, and all else, all of the larger scenery, the homes and port and ships and chimney smoke did well to draw attention to the small but more important figures on the failing pier. Everything was perfect: the sun casually blended into the background, less important than the scene which it illumined, the father and daughter – the artist thought of signing his name and, for the first time, hesitated. He took that as a sign and left it without a signature. He sat back in his reclining chair and lit a pipe to look it over. When his pipe was finished, he knocked the ash out and blew into the pipe to clear it, sat it on the stand by the chair, and fell into a deep sleep.

Some dreams draw you in through what most obsesses you, what scares you and what cheers you, and it links those scattered fears and desires together in ways that give them context and purpose. This was different, somehow less defined, like those artless lines above the pier, those vague shapes and houses behind them. The dream wasn’t showing the artist his painting, it was a world defined by it. The streets of cobbled, uneven brick, brown and beige and light pink, were the color of the canvas, undefined. The birds above the port in motion had no wings but flew the same as those connected V’s we draw as children, simply and effectively. The smoke rose from the pale chimneys in hasty lines suggesting smoke and fire. The people, all stick figures, both short and small, ran along the roads, disappearing out of one frame, spilling into another. Each house seemed empty, only at first; the view was out of focus, not set-up to be any sort of scene, like the world. There was no sense of being pulled or moving among the shapes, yet each space was gradually focused upon, as it is when one looks around. The canvas was a world, a world that had two people, and as it is in dreams so strangely brought into focus, the loneliness of this, the houses which somehow seemed empty, made this impression through a more unique, if more common magic.

The stick figures tall and short within the harbor were in motion. They moved in and out of sketched spaces, sometimes merging with the other figures also moving in that black-and-white world, and the rules were bent and broken; the figures walked over ships and walked through walls, each hurried and with purpose strangely with an unreal energy, exhaustive but without limit. The empty patches of the canvas became more populous, the figures in the crowd became defined as he moved among them. They came into view hurriedly and faded just as fast. The artificial feeling was uncomfortable, to see two shapes defined at the expense of all the others which, surely, felt as much as the father and his daughter in his arms. That’s when he became a part of the scene.

6

He looked down and saw his hands extend in front of him, stick figure hands like the rest, and he became a part of the crowd of stick-figures. The houses suggested by quick charcoal smudges rose above him on all sides, all nondescript save one, one house in the distance different somehow. The house was not remarkable, no more so than the rest, but – through that same common magic – a window had appeared where memory and waking life had failed to open. In the window he saw a figure sitting by a lamp, head on hands, looking down toward the scene to which he had given such attention. He tried to make it to the house, passing through walls and walking upside down with the tyrant of reality outside of jurisdiction, helpless as those stick-figure birds did caw as real birds did, each rustling of a single line giving sound like a pile of feathers might. The door of the home, a perfect square, a cheat really – he had used a book to get the shape just right – opened to a scene not on his canvas, and more real for it.

The light from the room spilled onto a brown carpet, a set of stairs that ended before meeting the second floor. He walked up to the place where he felt a door should be, where there was none, and a door appeared. It was a smaller door, a smaller cheat – the outline of a book, but smaller, and the doorknob a cheat as well, the outline traced along the edge of a coin, a Vichy French one franc coin with the printed 1 in the center, above it written Travail –– Fanille and under that Patrie. Beside the 1 were two shrubs, it was a coin given to him in zone occupée, above it was Franc and 1942. Strange, to be sure, that the coin he had but traced, without intending purpose or defining it, had sneaked into his dream.

And he remembered somehow, as one does through dreaming, as he reached for the doorknob, feeling the cheap and rough zinc and aluminum. He opened the door and saw a woman, she was smiling. He didn’t know her, or how she had crept into his painting, then into his dream. Then he remembered her, in a flash; he was sitting in the newly built Parc de la Butte du Chapeau Rouge, looking over the city of Paris. There were two stairways on either side connecting two long alleys, on both sides a well-tended lawn and two spiral paths; both led to a belvederes, a grove of well-tended trees beside it. There is another path that leads higher into the park, offering a better view, and the artist remembered climbing it. Three statues greeted him, two women and a child, and he inspected them. They were like classical statues made for 19th century gardens and playgrounds. He saw that the child held a sprig of grapes. He thought of reaching for them and heard the sound of heavy breathing and so stopped, his ear straining to focus on which sound had drew it of the city below, busy with soldiers coming home or leaving.

There was a woman, and she was young, still in her 20’s he thought. Very lovely, very demure and leggy, with red lips in Parisian fashion. She greeted him and asked, with an innocence and shame he didn’t understand and asked if he had change for a handsome cab, so she could make it home without walking. He gave her what he had, as he often did; there were so many, so many left destitute by war or just bad luck, and he intended to give her the lot, handing her what he thought would cover a taxi and more because no one asked for taxi change, this judgment in his memory loomed large and later shamed him when she saw the generosity, and meeting eyes with him, balked at the suggestion made by his eyes. She handed him the coin – the coin for the doorknob – the one Franc coin, rough and labeled Paris 1942. He woke to find the coin still in his hand, and the genie by his bed.

The dream began to fade, like water in one’s hands, and the artist struggled to keep the memory of that young woman with him. He made nothing of the genie’s presence, not at first, hurrying to his chalk and charcoal. He found that house, the house with the 1 Franc 1942 Paris door, and found the window and, somehow the same figure in it already; the shape was more defined than the others in the crowd. The people in the harbor were non-descript save for hats for some and occasionally a set of earrings added with a lazy flourish, yet unlike the rest the figure in the window he hadn’t noticed, unknown to him as he drew it, as he thought it over when he had finished, had a sprig of grapes – very small but with such detail to be unmistakable – and a definite shape to the lips and hair, with bangs and a straight crop at the shoulders. It was her, somehow in the back of his memory, haunting his painting silently and seemingly without reason.

He fell into his chair and remained silent. The sprig of leaves, the hair – it was uncanny to have done such intimate detail in a work so fluttery and vague. What did it mean? He wondered. Did it mean anything? Does it have to? The train of his thought was stopped when the man in the wooden rocking-chair beside him asked, What do you call it? I don’t know, the artist said. Is it finished? Asked the genie, still young, in the same dress just as spry and youthful. Is it ever? The artist asked. He laughed at his own statement, knowing it rhetorical; nothing is ever finished, he thought. And he imagined wasting away before the canvas, looking for ever more strange and unique connections buried there, finding each one of those stick-figures in a cupboard or a bottle somewhere in the days or years to come. Years? He thought. He looked at his hands – how odd they seemed, that age, like the young lady in that garden, had crept in silently and unannounced. He wouldn’t have that time. All his other work had only served to heat his lunch, but in burning it he found a perfect scene, a scene unlike life in that it seemed custom made, tailored by a God or muse for anyone to see and make immortal.

In a sudden burst of inspiration, he hurried to a workbench. He went through his chalk and charcoal and his oils until he found the perfect color, the color of the lipstick he had seen, if poorly, in the garden overlooking Paris. He returned to his canvas and deliberately and delicately put the smallest hint of rouge, of Parisian red, on the lips of that stranger overlooking an otherwise colorless harbor. He dropped the chalk and sat back in his chair, packed his pipe and lit it. Getting sleepy, finally contented. And for the briefest of moments before slipping into a dream that with the same common magic, so strange and infinitely indescribable, he felt like the greatest artist to ever live. He looked to the genie, still spry and smiling, youthful. He said,

I have a wish, he said. I wish for that girl, the girl I met in the garden, to have this painting. I’m not sure where she lives, how old she is! If she got married or had children. If she even made it home. I hope she did.

The stranger stood and walked toward the door.

“Wait,” the artist said. He handed the genie the coin, that zinc aluminum Franc, Paris of ’42. “Take a cab.”

“Thanks.”

He was asleep before the door had closed, in the garden again, with the statues and the lady in the window. Had his wish come true? it didn’t matter; there was joy there, in that garden, and where it came from, that didn’t matter. He sat on the hill and look to the city again, among those statues and bocage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s