July 1, 2020

The Lamp, by Marshall J. Moore


Editor’s note: This story intrigued me because of the narrator. Both compelling and unreliable, I felt myself wanting another story about this “genie.” I think it’s a great read to start EC fiction up again. Please do leave comments and insights below the story. I want to know what you all think.

I granted no wishes.

That is the first thing that needs to be said.

Yes, I held the powers of Creation in my hands. I have split atoms into their constituent parts, and have witnessed the formation of galaxies. I have served as midwife at the birth of new worlds and have brought about extinctions with the merest act of will. I exist eternally, within the rushing stream of Time but not beholden to it. I was before the universe began, and I will be after it ends.

Would I bend the cosmic forces of existence, merely to enhance the social standing and wealth of an urchin child? The thought would be laughable, were it not so fundamentally against my very nature.

No, I did not grant wishes—or at least, I did not reorder reality to do so. I merely imparted knowledge, which is the only true source of power.  And as a being who exists at once in present, past, and future, my knowledge is considerable. If the boy made use of what I told him to fulfill his own desires—his own wishes—then that was his doing, not mine.

Nor did I serve the boy out of some contractual obligation. There was no bargain struck in which I agreed to conditional servitude in exchange for an end to my imprisonment. Any kindness I did him was done out of simple gratitude, not a desire to relieve myself of the burden of my salvation.

For his part, the boy was never so cruel or imaginative as to consider himself my master. The worst crimes he was guilty of were greed—understandable, considering his extreme poverty—and of being a bit stupid.

At least, at first.

So, no. The three wishes are an embellishment, as is my alleged enslavement. That did not come until the end.

But there was a lamp.

#

It was a dark and dismal prison, as all prisons are. I suppose any such confinement that was comfortable and cheerfully lit would defeat the entire purpose of imprisonment. But even by the standards of such institutions, the confines of an oil lamp are, after all, quite cramped.

I am not a corporeal being. I inhabit Time only partially and can only experience Matter with a great deal of effort—save when I am forced to do so. Such was the case with the lamp.

#

The torchlight was not bright, but after over a millennium of confinement it felt like seeing the sun again for the first time—like when I had first danced upon the surface of the stars, delighting in the radiance of their endless fusion.

I emerged from my prison in a rush, my wings unfurling, my halo illuminating the dank dimness of the cave until the meager torch was hardly visible amidst the splendor. I rose to my full height, until my wing tips brushed the cavern roof. Only then did I notice the mortal youth who knelt at my feet, his mouth hanging open in an expression of equal parts abject horror and unabashed wonder. In his hands, nearly forgotten, was the accursed lamp.

He did not look like a monster. Not then.

I reached out for him, intending to thank him for my rescue, but he scrabbled back on all fours, lamp still clutched in his hand.

Ah. Right.

I am incapable of forgetting, but in my haste to escape my prison I had neglected the proper niceties. I shrank down until I was scarcely taller than a grown man, folding all four wings behind my back and dimming my halo until it became merely dazzling rather than blinding.

I stretched out a hand and told the boy, “Be not afraid.”

Yes, that was it. The proper form of introduction, accompanied by veiling of my cosmic form. Driving my rescuer to madness would be a poor thanks, and impolite to boot.

The boy stared. His clothes were threadbare and much-mended. I could see his ribs in the places where patches had given way to holes.

“You’re a genie,” he told me, his voice small.

“I am,” I agreed. My kind have been called many names by many peoples through the eons. Djinn, kami, Elohim. Names are immaterial to us, changing with the age and place we inhabit.

He looked me up and down, the fear draining from his face in favor of a shrewd calculation. It was the look of one who is forced to survive on their own cleverness, and must by necessity be willing to turn any situation to their advantage. Those who lived comfortably almost never possess it, while the impoverished nearly always do.

“They say genies grant wishes,” he ventured, the crafty gleam in his eyes growing with each word.

“Do they?” I asked, amused. “Perhaps we do. Let me guess. Money, power, the hand of a beautiful woman. All of those things you desire, yes?”

His brow furrowed in surprise. “How did you know?”

“One human is very much like another.” I shrugged. “I have inhabited this world since your people first began shaping river mud into clay. The first man who ever asked anything of me wanted a thousand ceramic pots, three wives, and to become chief of his tribe.”

“And did you give them to him?”

“I did. So, then. What is your wish, Master …?”

Understand, I meant “master” strictly in the sense of being an honorific for an adolescent.

“Aladdin,” he supplied.

“And what do I call you?”

“I have no name,” I told him. “Names are for things that do not know what they are.”

“But,” he frowned, “I must call you something.”

“‘Genie’ will do,” I told him. I looked around at our surroundings. The cave was cool and dry, and showed signs of a recent cave-in.

And there was gold. A great deal of it, scattered about the young man’s feet. I had been buried in a treasure hoard. How flattering.

“So,” I said. “Aladdin. It seems that wealth is already taken care of, though I see you have no place to spend it in this cave.”

“That problem had occurred to me as well,” he admitted. Still, he hesitated. “How many wishes am I allowed?”

“It doesn’t work like that,” I told him. “Simply tell me what you want, and I will advise you how to make it so.”

Aladdin frowned. “You cannot simply snap your fingers and it is done?”

“I could,” I said, “If you were to ask, say, that I transported us both from this cave, I could do so with the merest application of will. But I cannot promise that I would not send us both to the distant sands of the planet Mars, where there is no air. I would be fine of course, but you ...”

I waved a hand at his scrawny form. His face had grown noticeably paler.

“I think I see,” he said, wiping at his brow.

“If you require an analogy,” I told him, “think of it as performing brain surgery with a pair of pliers.”

“What?”

“Never mind.” Occasionally I forget that the mortal mind is capable of occupying only its current location in time. What a limiting mode of existence that must be.

“For the good of yourself and others, I will not and cannot remake the world simply to suit your whims.”

Aladdin’s frown deepened. “Then how are we going to get out of this cave?”

“Because I do possess the only power that matters. Knowledge.” I pointed behind me, towards the back of the cave. “Go further in, keeping your right hand against the wall at all times. I will accompany you and guide you. Eventually you will reach a stream. Follow it, and it will lead you to the cave’s exit.”

I glanced about at the coins littering the floor. “Though if it is still wealth and riches that you desire, I suggest you fill your pockets first.”

“I will,” he said, then looked down at what he held in his hands. “And what of this?”

I looked down at the lamp.

“Leave it,” I told him.

#

As I have said, our relationship was not that of master and slave. I advised him, yes, but in the same way as a parent advises a child. None of that “to hear is to obey” nonsense.

My advice was good, as it always is. The stream led him out of the cave and into the remote desert. I stretched my wings, eager to take to the skies for the first time in many centuries. Flight is a joy that more than makes up for the indignities of being bound to the physical world.

So I flew, navigating the safest path back to his home, where I knew his mother waited anxiously for her lost son’s return. Aladdin followed below, earthbound like all mortals.

When he thirsted, he wished for water, and I would tell him where to find an oasis among the sands. When he hungered, he wished for food, and I would guide him to where the desert creatures slept in their daytime hiding places.

On the fifth day we reached the city where he lived. I watched, invisible, as Aladdin embraced his weeping mother. He showed her the coins he had obtained, and promised to buy her a good home with many servants.
Such greed was forgivable, I told myself. He is a poor boy who loves his mother. They are both entitled to some luxury after their hardship.

Aladdin was true to his word. He bought his mother a lavish home and dressed her in the finest linens. But when all was purchased, he had only a single coin left over from what he had taken from the cave.

“My mother and I cannot eat gold,” he complained to me.

“So buy food,” I told him.

“If I do, there will be no money left for us to buy tomorrow’s supper,” he said. Then he looked at me, the shrewd glint in his eye returning. “Unless you can make more money. Can you?”

“If you wish it,” I said, and I told him how to multiply his single gold coin.

Aladdin did as I advised. He borrowed enough to buy a caravan’s worth of silks and spices. Together he and I traveled to distant Byzantium, where he sold them for an astronomical profit. He returned to his mother’s house a rich man, freed from his debts.

But wealth does not beget satisfaction.

#

Perhaps if he had been more imaginative, the harm would have been less. A curious man might have asked me the secrets of the universe, to know what base elements matter was made from and what unseen force moved the stars across the heavens. But the simple man does not think past his own needs. Aladdin’s mind was focused only on his life and its pleasures.

And wealth. Ever more wealth. As a boy Aladdin had been content with the coins taken from the treasure cave, and afterwards with enough to give his mother a comfortable life. Now, as he grew tall and bearded, his heart became bound with golden shackles.

Dutifully, I told him what I knew. What goods would sell best in which markets. Which trade routes were safe and which were beset by bandits. What emir it was safe to ally himself with, and which shah would be overthrown by his viziers before he could honor his agreements.

And so Aladdin became one of the wealthiest men in the world, so wealthy that he became a friend of the sultan himself. In this, as in all things, I was his secret counselor, telling him the ways of the court, the proper etiquette to keep him from embarrassing himself in such distinguished company. And of course, how to conceal his lowly origin from the sultan and his courtiers.

All that fell by the wayside when he saw her, of course.

I had been correct in my estimation of him, that first day in the cave. When he caught sight of the sultan’s youngest daughter, Aladdin’s next wish was exactly what I had thought it might be.

So I told him what he asked me to know: how to seduce her with fine poetry and music and choice delights brought by his caravan from distant lands. The human heart is not a lock to be opened or closed, but I told him the words that might win hers, and my advice is always good. They were wed within the year.

#

But the avaricious man is never satisfied. He always seeks more than he has. Having known what it is to want, he lives his life in fear of being so vulnerable again.

Years passed. No longer content with merely being extravagantly rich, Aladdin wished to become powerful as well. I told him the secret to winning men’s hearts, to garnering loyalty and manipulating the levers of politics. By the time he was thirty, he had deposed his father-in-law the sultan and instilled himself as regent. By the time he was forty, he was sultan in name as well as fact.

Years became decades. I watched as Aladdin’s avarice consumed him, just as he consumed endless meals of rich delights. He ordered the construction of a splendid palace, larger and grander than that of the predecessor he had usurped. He filled his harem with fresh beauties, their youth and suppleness in direct proportion to his steadily advancing age. His wife, the sultan’s daughter, was cast aside with hardly a thought.

You may wonder why I watched all this happen, and did not simply leave, or, failing that, turn Aladdin and the palace he had built into a pile of ash.

I wonder myself, sometimes. Perhaps I hoped that some trace of the scrawny young boy who had released me from my imprisonment still remained.

As his middle grew fat and his beard grew white, Aladdin’s avarice gave way to fear. The poor see their enemies on the daylit streets; the rich see theirs in every shadow. He grew wary of assassins, suspected a knife hiding behind every smile in his court. He ordered his enemies imprisoned or killed, whether they were real or imaginary—and I knew which were which. He doubled the number of his palace guards, then tripled them. Then, fearing that their loyalties were suspect, he had them all executed.

He feared me too. I saw it in his eyes on the occasions he consulted me for advice, which were becoming fewer and further between. I was too powerful, too dangerous for him to allow me to fall into another’s hands.

I had seen the writing on the wall. I knew the future that awaited me as surely as I did the past. And yet I did not run from it. What would be the point? The future was set in stone.

He came for me at night, surrounded by better than twenty guards. I was not asleep, having no need for it, but he looked surprised to see me awake, all the same.

In his hands he held an old brass oil lamp.

My eyes met his. I felt no anger, only sadness. I had made the sly, simple orphan boy into the fat tyrant standing before me.

“I have one more wish,” he said.

***

Bio: Marshall J. Moore is a writer, filmmaker, and martial artist. He has traveled to over twenty countries, once sold a thousand dollars' worth of teapots to Jackie Chan, and on one occasion was tracked down by a bounty hunter for owing $300 in overdue fees to the L.A. Public Library.

23 comments:

Ellie a.Goss said...

It's not a bad story, I like the point of view and the wings are new.

Maxine said...

Great story, well told and well picked. Interesting to see a well loved story told from a different angle. The narrator cannot be as powerful or all knowing as he would like us to believe, or how else would he have been trapped in the first place? It makes the ending so strong.

Kelly Jarvis said...

This story has a fascinating narrative voice! Aladdin was my son's favorite story when he was little, and this point of view forces us to think of Aladdin as a human rather than a hero. It also makes me think about human greed and the limits of our wishes and desires in comparison to the incredible experiences of the genie who has witnessed the birth of new worlds. And yet, in spite of all that power, the genie is contained in a lamp, which also serves as a brilliant title for the story that provides us with a short and contained glimpse at this larger than life character. It really leaves you wanting to know more about the genie's experiences!I loved it!

Myna said...

I really enjoyed this. Beautifully written, with a fantastic narrator. Congrats to the author!

HulderMN said...

Great story! Such a clear voice of the narrator and a camera-eye's view of the boy, Aladdin.

I wonder what got him imprisoned in the lamp in the first place? Perhaps seeing the future simultaneously with past and present leads to a kind of passive fatalism? In that case, the genie/angel is a tragic figure. Or maybe there's a touch of Groundhog Day (movie) in this story, but without the energy to change one's circumstances.

His advice? Always good, but perhaps Knowledge (alone) is not the greatest power?

Katew said...

I didn’t think of that, but you could be right about the knowledge. I love the Groundhog Day insight. You’re right!

Katew said...

It’s a great take!

Katew said...

How did he get in there? I really want to know!!!

Katew said...

Why is this super angel in there? If the angel had done as much as he claims, he wouldn’t be in the lamp. I feel the same way.

Katew said...

Love the wings.

Kathleen Jowitt said...

That's a lovely first line. In fact, the whole of the first paragraph works really well, both establishing and undercutting the story we think we know.

Katew said...

All while setting the narrator up as unreliable!

Chetan Saxena said...

Compelling storytelling and obviously a fine take. Congratulations to the author.

Kate Wolford said...

I’m glad you liked it.

Katew said...

I’m glad you liked it.

Dixie Jarchow said...

I thought it was great. Very smooth flow, not too much, not too little description. Excellent1

Katew said...

It was very well paced. Thanks for reading.

Lissa Sloan said...

I enjoyed this, especially the commentary on poverty, its effects, and human nature!

Katew said...

I didn’t really focus on the poverty angle, but you are right.

Teika Marija said...

I thought this was an original and well-written reworking of the tale - I particularly liked the commentary on human nature and the power of knowledge, though as another commenter wrote, knowledge without a tempering of empathy is not all-powerful. (But... with my ex-scientist hat on I feel it necessary to point out that fusion, and not fission, powers the stars!) Thank you for the enjoyable read. :-)

Katew said...

That’s what’s been niggling at me! I knew snort Jon was bothering me in that paragraph, but couldn’t place it. Thank you! I’m going to fix it.

Unknown said...

Shrewd and insightful. Thank you! What having all our desires fulfilled will do to us! It also inspires me to dive between the fairy tale lines to emerge with a gem.

Katew said...

There’s so much unsaid here. It does make me think about liking between the lines more of other stories.

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