When Azzam was a young man, so many moons ago, he was working as an acquirer of valuable goods when he stumbled upon a small, unremarkable bottle that changed the course of his life thereafter…
The other two men were searching the great manor for jewels or precious metal coins or bolts of silk hidden in the long-rusted and oft-looted trunks that lay within. The trunks once belonged to a well-to-do family who enjoyed many generations of prosperity until something forced them away from the region. War, perhaps, or pestilence. It was for the historians to say. Azzam only wanted to find something he could sell so he could pay back the last of his debts and begin earning a higher profit. He had the good fortune to be betrothed to the love of his life. And he had to assure her family that he could take care of himself and her and any children they would bear in years to come. He had their good favor and did not want to lose it.
He wasn’t foolish enough to think there would still be riches left in the mansion. But perhaps there would be rarities that would interest a scholar at a wealthy academy. He was patient and keen-eyed. Had he the means, he would have been a scholar himself. As it was, he was considered an acquirer of high repute. He had stood among ruins and climbed down into underground caves. He had been a guest in the hovel of the poorest villager and in the manor of a lord, a manor even finer than the one in which he now searched.
He came upon a bottle of what he thought was some kind of liqueur. The bottle was unbroken and the wax seal over the cap was undisturbed. He felt the weight of something within, but if it was liquid, it must have been a honey-like liquid, for he heard no sloshing when he gently tipped the bottle one way and then the other. He rubbed dust and cobwebs off the bottle. His eye caught a glint of red within. He peered into the bottle, wondering if he was wrong about finding treasure in the manor after all. Perhaps there was a precious gem within the bottle. A ruby.
Azzam didn’t know if gemstones could be stored in liqueur. He stowed the bottle away and continued his search. He found a few other items of interest among the well-picked ruins. A few books of the family’s household accounts, purchases of food and milk and the like. A well-preserved scroll that he did not dare to untie and open for fear of the damage he might cause. A not-to-broken chair that he could either fix or fashion into some other item of worth. But the bottle had been among the first items he found, and his curiosity about it tickled the back of his mind all that day until he went home and looked for it among his scavenged goods.
Azzam sat at his table beside his window. With gentle sweeps of a cloth soaked in soap and water, he cleaned the bottle. It was simple yet elegant in design. The bottle was made of amber-tinted glass with a square base. The glass twisted slightly to the left as it flowed upward, narrowing until it reached the neck. He cracked the wax seal. Beneath the wax, he saw a golden-bronze cap. There were marks or etchings along one side of the glass. He didn’t recognize the marks. He couldn’t tell if they held any meaning as letters or figures, or if they were just part of the bottle’s design. Azzam peered into the bottle, searching for that glint of red he had seen before, but he saw nothing. He could not even tell if there was any liquid in the bottle, though it felt heavier than it should have been if empty. For a long time, he turned the bottle over and over, examined the etchings, and pondered whether he should take it to the scholar he often dealt with, to ask if the man could make sense of the marks. Azzam was usually a patient man, though young, but his curiosity about the bottle was too strong.
In a fit of recklessness, he opened the bottle. Out burst a red flame. A smokeless red flame. Azzam leapt back, tipping the bottle over. He felt the heat of the flame, and turned to grasp hold of his cloak so he could smother the flames. When he turned around, he saw that the flickering red flames had not set anything on fire as yet. They seemed to be moving oddly for flame, condensing like fog. The flame became more and more solid and took on the form of a most unusual man, if he could be called a man. His skin was so red and shiny, it appeared sunburnt. His eyes were black. His garb was strange and archaic. He did not give his name. He only asked if Azzam was the owner of the bottle. Azzam gaped and found just enough sense to nod and say “yes.”
The man of flame bowed to him. “I will grant you and only you seven wishes.”
Terror surged through Azzam’s heart, for he realized that the man before him was no man, but a djinn. And the djinn were no friends of humankind. The stories that his mother’s mother had recited to him when he sat on her knee as a babe returned to the forefront of his memories. He was in danger of being possessed or abused, or at least harassed. He might be made to feel such horror at night that he could not sleep and he would lose his livelihood and his love. He might be burned by those red flames.
The djinn stepped forth. “What is your first wish?” And when he saw that Azzam stepped backward, and noted the fear on the young man’s face, the djinn stepped back and spoke soothing words. He tried to calm Azzam and claimed that he was only there to serve. So long as Azzam owned the bottle, the djinn would grant up to seven wishes for him.
What Azzam wished was for the djinn to go back into the bottle. But he was too terrified to speak.
“You may wish me back into the bottle,” the djinn said as if reading Azzam’s thoughts. “But if you do, you will be sacrificing six wishes.”
Azzam was still holding his cloak up. He had grabbed it to smother the flames, but now he held it up as if it were a shield against the immense power of the djinn.
“While you possess the bottle,” the djinn said. “I cannot harm you.”
Azzam was terrified, but hopeful. He was suspicious, but curious. The djinn might have been feigning subservience. They were rumored to be tricky and treacherous, the djinn. Perhaps the promise of wishes was a ruse, a trick of the mind, a part of the djinn’s plan for some imminent horror. What the djinn said could not be true. Azzam was but a mere human, weak and short-lived. And here was a djinn, powerful, long-lived, and if legends were true, hateful of humans.
The djinn seemed very keen however to be of service. He tried to convince Azzam to take the wishes. He spoke of all the previous owners of the bottle who had wished for things like fame, wealth, good health, long life, good looks, good spouses, and the like.
“All those wishes and more have I granted for others,” the djinn said, flourishing a red and flickering hand. “What wish can I grant for you?”
Azzam had heard a vague tales of such happenings. In a rage, the one who ruled the heavens cast down a great number of the djinn and imprisoned them in traps from which they could only be freed by the hand of a human. Once freed they had to serve their liberators until death. Some rumors spoke of favors that the djinn were forced to grant to any human who found and sprung such a trap. Some said the number of favors equaled the number of tears that the heavens wept when the djinn performed the offence for which they were banished. Nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine.
But even if such tales were true, no gift given by a djinn could be trusted. Azzam would have to take great care. He began to calm down enough to think of some way he might convince the djinn to leave him be. But Azzam could not merely pass the burden onto another. He needed to find out if the djinn spoke the truth. He found that the djinn was willing to talk and he asked questions.
“If I forfeit my wishes, would you be free to return to your realm?” Azzam asked.
“I cannot return to my own realm unless you make your allotment of wishes. You are the last master. I will be free once you have wished your wishes.”
Azzam suffered another moment of recklessness. He spoke the truth in hopes that the djinn would do so in turn. “I fear you will remain in our domain once freed. With no rein on your powers, you could do much harm.”
“Why would I do so?”
“Out of bitterness, for having been made to serve us.”
“In truth, it has been quite amusing for me. And I have honed my powers well. I have no present quarrel with your kind.”
Azzam asked many questions of the djinn, who answered every one with answers that seemed reasonable. But Azzam could not trust the answers for he did not trust the djinn.
“What is the price of your wishes?” he asked.
“My penance,” the djinn answered.
“I meant the price to your masters.”
The djinn inclined his head. “I have never met anyone so content as to not want at least one wish.”
Azzam asked if he might have until morning to make his decision, to which the djinn agreed. But when Azzam asked the djinn to retire to his bottle, the djinn refused. He could not be compelled, save by a wish. Azzam was tired, but he could not rest with a djinn in his bedchamber.
He would have to be clever to parley with a djinn. “Can you bring back the dead?”
“That is beyond my power.”
“Can I wish for powers like yours? The powers of a djinn?”
“I can only grant any of the unforbidden wishes.”
“What, pray tell, are the forbidden wishes?”
The djinn hesitated. “I cannot bring back the dead. I cannot grant any powers beyond the natural gifts of a given creature. I cannot be freed by a wish. I cannot bend the will of another–so I cannot make someone love you, nor can I make someone hate you. I cannot tamper with time. I cannot take a life. I cannot harm my master.”
“Can you harm another, if your master wishes it?”
A spark erupted in the djinn’s coal-like eyes. “Yes, so long as the harm does not result in death.”
“That seems a poor penance.”
Azzam dared to look in the djinn’s eyes, searching for mercy, pity, compassion, repentance, even jolliness. The djinn were said to have passions and feelings like men and women. But if this djinn had any, Azzam could not read them in his eyes.
The djinn continued in his persuasions. “I have cured diseases. I have made ugly men handsome and poor women rich. I have granted land to the homeless and purpose to the aimless.”
A notion occurred to Azzam then.
“What if I were to wish that you and all the djinn could no longer harm any human or any creature upon the earth hereafter?”
“It is beyond my power to control all other djinn.”
“What of yourself?”
“I cannot grant the wish.”
“Why not? It’s not forbidden.”
“It goes against my penance.”
Azzam could see that he could not compel the djinn to explain. He wondered if he could make a wish that would have the same effect as restraining the djinn from harming any creature on the earth.
“What would happen if I should wish that no creature on earth suffered any disease any more?”
“That is beyond my power. I cannot change the whole world’s fortunes. And I cannot see the future.”
“But you can make a strong guess based on your knowledge, your vast knowledge of past and present, can you not?”
“That is all I ask.”
The djinn thought a moment. “If it were within my power and I made it so, the world would become crowded very quickly, for all creatures would die only of accident or old age. There would not be enough space or food for all.”
“What would happen if I wished for peace and prosperity for all, and if it were within your power to grant it?”
“I would put all creatures into a perpetual sleep, for then there would be peace.”
“And what of prosperity?”
“That would be easy enough to grant, for all would be rich within their dreams.”
Azzam began to see that every wish he might wish would have some consequence. It would serve the djinn to stir some lies into the truth, for he wanted to encourage Azzam to make his wishes. Azzam began to think of a way to force the djinn to return to his realm, perhaps by using his wishes. But he could not free the djinn directly with a wish. And the only way to send him back to his realm was if he had granted all his wishes. The djinn might very well kill Azzam once the last wish was granted. And if he didn’t, he would surely do some mischief elsewhere. That much Azzam was certain of from the way the djinn had spoken, even if he could not read the djinn’s eyes. And after all of that, he still wasn’t sure if the djinn spoke the truth about granting wishes. Even as he had spoken to the djinn, Azzam had been thinking. A poor plan he had devised, but he had to do something. Azzam took a breath and made his first wish.
“I wish to know the costs of all my wishes, including this one.”
The djinn frowned. “All my previous masters have been motivated by two and only two things: greed or need. Are you certain there is nothing else you would rather wish for? Nothing you desire? Nothing you cannot live without?”
“Can you grant my wish?”
The djinn bowed his head. “It is granted.”
Azzam raised his brows. “And so?”
“The only cost of your first wish is that you have only six wishes left. And no gain yet to show for it.”
“I wish for you to speak only the truth to me.”
“It is granted. The cost is that you may bear the burden of much unpleasant knowledge, and that you now have only five wishes left with no gain to show for it.”
Azzam asked the questions he had asked before and the djinn gave the same answers.
“Why could you not grant the wish of no harm to the creatures of the earth?” Azzam asked. “How does that go against your penance?”
The djinn bowed his head. “The only way I can refrain from harming all humans and all creatures upon the earth hereafter is if I remain in my own realm. And I cannot go to my own realm until all your wishes are wished.”
Azzam nodded. He was beginning to believe that the wishes were real and the djinn truly bound to grant them. He would try to banish the djinn as his last wish then. He continued on with his wishes.
“I wish to know the names of all your former masters.”
“It is granted. The cost is that you will spend many hours in the hearing of the names, for they are not few.”
Azzam wrote down the names as they were recited. He wrote through the night. There were thousands of names, and considering the age of the world, that seemed impossible. He said as much.
The djinn looked at him askance and merely said, “The world is far older than you know.”
Azzam thought and thought as he wrote. And as he wrote, he asked the djinn about each master. And the djinn, compelled by a wish to tell the truth, answered.
Azzam learned that the first family to hold the bottle was responsible for the curses and misery that had plagued the region for generations. And almost every master after them had similarly cursed others to various dooms by asking for and receiving blessings upon themselves. For the djinn could not make something from nothing. If one wished for money, the djinn had to take that money from someone else. When a master asked for their fallow fields to be lush with crops, it meant the djinn would ruin someone else’s crops. Rain in their region during a drought meant a drought in some other region or land. Good health for one meant ill health for another.
And while the djinn himself could not directly harm his master, he had found ways to do so in the granting of their wishes. There was the noblewoman who wished for eternal youth. The djinn arranged for her to be attacked by a creature whose bite could infect one with the most obscene and horrific of diseases. The woman contracted the disease and thereafter could not bear the sunlight, nor could she bear or consume food. She had to drink blood to survive. And it had to be human blood if she wished to retain her youth. She did indeed stop aging ,and she still lived, according to the djinn.
The djinn seemed glad to be free to boast of his work, of all the different ways he could twist the wishes of his masters.
Azzam’s caution and suspicion remained, but much of his fear had melted away against the heat of his growing anger. By the time morning came, he had decided what he would do.
“What would happen if I wished that you were made human?” Azzam asked.
The djinn looked troubled. “You would have no more wishes left. And my powers would be unleashed upon the earth, uncontrolled by a will. Fire would consume this land. And every creature in it. A smokeless fire that could not be quenched save by the will of the heavens.”
“And what if another will could be traded for yours to control those powers? Another person to take your place?”
Flames began to shiver about the djinn’s form. His eyes sparked like flints. He was angered, but he was also scared. Azzam never imagined he would manage to scare a djinn.
“That person could control my powers, but would also be compelled to take on my burden as prisoner of the bottle. And granter of wishes.”
“The three remaining wishes?”
“It would be so.”
“And after that?”
“The person would be free of the bottle.”
“If I were to be that person, would my body be able to contain the powers of the djinn?”
“No, your body would be destroyed,” the djinn said haughtily. But the power of Azzam’s wishes was still upon him. “But your soul is strong enough. It could contain and direct the powers, and with the powers you can restore your form, or a semblance of it. A body not of flesh of blood, but the matter born of fire.” He spread out his hands.
“Would it be painful?”
“I should hope so.” The djinn’s red flames leapt toward Azzam, but did not touch him.
The djinn could not foresee the future and there might be costs beyond what he had named. But after eons of serving humankind, after a night of struggling to cajole his last master to make the last wishes, if the djinn were freed, he would be a most vicious enemy. Azzam opened his mouth and spoke.
In the moment before he lost all sense, the pain was the most excruciating and sickening that Azzam had ever felt in his life. His body tore apart at every seam. It shattered. And then he saw blackness.
Flames of yellow, green, blue, and black flickered before his eyes, though he had no eyes. He had some sense beyond the sense of material form. He felt hazy and unfocused, but as he exerted his will, his focus returned, and he pictured his form as he had seen it reflected in puddles and mirrors. A blue-green flame blazed before him and then all around him. There was no smoke, and to him there was no heat. He willed the flame to be extinguished and so it was. And he raised his arms and turned his hands over and about. There was a bluish cast to his skin. And his limbs felt light. He felt as if he could leap over trees.
In his bedchamber beside the table that stood by the window, he saw a pile of reddish ash and charred red bones. The djinn. He had been burned by his own powers when Azzam’s wish turned him human. And without his djinn powers, he was forever gone.
That was the last sight that Azzam saw before he felt his form melt and mist and become sucked into the bottle.
Before he made his fourth wish, Azzam had written and left a note for his beloved. A strange tale and odd instructions. He knew he could trust her. He only hoped that she would trust him. That she would believe what he had written and not think it a jest, for he often jested with her.
She was a practical and good-hearted young woman. And when he found himself released from the bottle, with the burden of three wishes to fulfill, he saw with relief that his new master was his old love. He bowed to her and asked her to grant her first wish. In his note to her, he had warned her of the costs, and asked her to make the three most harmless wishes she could think of. She took his bottle and his arm and they went to market, where she bought some sweets. She wished that she could eat one of the sweets and Azzam granted her wish. She then went to the well and drew some water in a bucket. She took a ladle and swept some water into it. She wished that she could drink the water that was then in the ladle and Azzam granted her wish.
For her last wish, she said, “I wish for a kiss from my beloved Azzam.”
And so Azzam granted the last wish and as he did so, he felt a burden lifted from him and the bottle in which he had been imprisoned for less than a day shattered.
As it did, a new urge tugged at his heart. He soon recognized it as a longing to slip from the realm of humans to the realm of the djinn. But aside from the change in his form and powers, he felt no different. He had no sudden urge to mischief. No ill will or malice toward humans. Yet he retained the djinn powers. If he lost focus for even a moment, he would turn into flame and feel a falling sensation that pulled him not downward, but sideways, toward the djinn realm. And when he turned to flame, his beloved complained of his terrible heat. It was unbearable to her, for her soul was still contained within the delicate frame of flesh and bone.
It was then that Azzam regretted there were no wishes left, for he would have wished to have the djinn powers contained within some object if they could be. Then he realized that he did not need wishes. He had the powers of a djinn and when he focused, he could concentrate those powers and contain them in an object as the djinn had been contained in the bottle. He did so and made a cuff of silver and lapis lazuli that fit about his upper arm. So long as the cuff remained with Azzam, he could keep his powers within it and walk about the realm of men as the man he once was. He could keep the powers from tempting and corrupting him. And he could assure that no harm came to his fellows from his fierce djinn flames.
In time, he learned to harness and use his djinn powers. Thereafter, he used his powers dutifully and with conscience, in penance for what he had done to the djinn, and in service of humankind and all the creatures of the earth.
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel.