The bottle from the sea

I just read in asakiyume‘s journal that today is Tell-A-Fairy-Tale day. I’ve never heard of that before, but I love the idea. And I’ve had a long day. Fairytales are just what I need right now.

Once upon a time, there was a poor fisherman. Not only was he poor, he was unlucky: there was no one in the village with the same knack for bringing nothing home but old bones from the sea and torn nets, and what little fish he managed to catch never got enough money to pay everything he’d come to owe his neighbours, his landlord, and the local shop owners. At first he’d berated himself for being so bad at catching fish, then he got used to it–his landlord and his neighbours and the local shop owners didn’t seem too unhappy to always ask money from him, and as the interest rates soared, he soon figured that he was getting the village going at his own expense, rather than burdening it.

One day he went to the sea, feeling even less lucky than usual. He threw his net, felt something tug, drew it back up again. In the net was the broken jaw of a dead donkey. He threw it back into the sea.

“Two more like that and I’m going home,” he thought.

He felt a tug and drew his net back up. Inside was a rotten plank from a long-sunken boat.

“One more like that and I’m going home. No point in wasting a sunny day.”

He threw his net again and felt nothing for a good while, then it got heavier. He pulled it up. Inside was a rusty iron bottle.

“At least I can sell this for scrap metal,” he thought, pulling it out. It felt heavy–solid heavy, not sloshing with sea-water. He opened it.

“WHO IS IT WHO HATH PULLED ME FROM MY WATERY GRAVE?” a low voice growled.

The fisherman looked up.

And up.

And up.

There he stood, taller than the tallest building in all the village. A genie. His hair had rotten away and seaweed grown on his scalp, his nostrils sprayed out water rhythmically, his eye were liquid like beryls. The fisherman sat down and shielded his eyes from the sun with his hands. Really, this was a big genie.

Big fat luck indeed. And now he was going to die, and his wife would be left alone to pay the debts. He sat back heavily, and sighed.

“All right then, big man,” he said. “What is it this time? Drowning? Fire? Being bled like a sheep?”

The genie looked confused. The fisherman grew impatient. “You’re going to kill me, right? That’s what genies do to fishermen, so just get on with it!”

The genie sat down beside him. It cast a huge shadow, and suddenly, the fisherman didn’t feel so brazen. He lifted up his eyes, tentatively, hoping that the genie would make it quick and painless, and realising at the same time that “quick and painless” didn’t sound comforting at all now he was about to experience it. The genie gazed straight ahead as if he didn’t see him. He looked utterly lost.

There was a long, long silence. The fisherman held up his hand, then patted the genie’s arm, with a sinking feeling, as if he was petting a wild lion.

“I was imprisonned down there because I couldn’t pay my debts,” the genie said. “I don’t know how long it’s been. I don’t feel like killing anyone right now.”

Ah. That was unexpected. The fisherman’s mind started to work very fast. There was one other thing genies did. Three wishes. Get his wife a set of jewels? No, she’d never been that fashion-obsessed to begin with. Owning the house he lived in? Come to think of it, it was a shack. A new boat? Hell, he’d rather not work at all if given the choice. He couldn’t imagine what life was like away from the sea and the scarcity of fish, but he’d always heard it was the most desirable thing in the world. And if not for himself, at least for his wife. Maybe they’d finally manage to raise children like they’d dreamed they would.

“I know, genie,” he said. “Make me a king. No, wait, not a king. A landowner. Yes, that’s about right. Make me the owner of half of this country’s land and money and businesses. Give me so much money the interest rates will be enough to live by. I don’t want to work a single day in my life. Maybe I’ll lend people money if it pleases me, and they’ll thank me instead of insulting me, for once. Yeah, I like that. Make them thankful enough.”

The genie sucked in a breath and quivered. The fisherman looked up. There was no one there.

Then he looked down. There was someone sitting next to him, a poor fisherman, dressed in rags, with seaweed tangled in his thinning hair, looking down at his hands and bare feet with eyes big enough to swallow the sea.

“I never was good at granting wishes,” he breathed in a deep, hollow genie’s voice. Then he looked at the fisherman, too stunned for anger, it seemed. “I don’t understand, he added. I owed you a wish and I couldn’t grant it. I’m in a debt I can’t pay, again. I should be imprisonned. What am I doing here?”

Imprisonned–nobody had been imprisonned for debt in this country for… wait.

The fisherman looked at himself, his tattered clothes, his bare feet, felt his balding head. He looked at the genie, and he had to summon all the virtue in his soul to regret his misery to come, and suppress the whiff of satisfaction he’d felt at seeing one once so mighty sink so low.

“Poor devil,” he said at last. “You’ve been down there a long time, haven’t you? Nobody’s imprisonned for debt anymore. These days we’re imprisonned by debt. I’m sorry I didn’t get it any sooner. I’ve been a fool to believe a poor sod like you who’s spent centuries in a bottle could have any power left. Too bad landowners and shop keepers don’t grant wishes.”

“The prison…?” the genie said.

“You’re in it right as we speak. I’m sorry, my friend. Let’s keep each other company while we have to endure it. Here, perhaps with the two of us to lift that net, we can catch something bigger.”

And one day we will, he thought. One day there won’t be enough gold in the world to pay all these debts, and we’ll just sit by the fire and eat our fish and be glad, and they can eat their gold for all we care. Our fish won’t be for sale then. How sweet it will taste. How sweet it could taste even tonight, knowing I have a new friend to share my catch with.

Together they threw the net into the sea, and they thought of all the fallen genies that would one day come to swell their ranks.

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