“Pick a bottle and let your genie come out of it,” instructed the woman who had introduced herself earlier in the evening as Evening Breeze over Sweet Grasses, and the women seated cross-legged on the rush mats obediently reached toward the array of glass and ceramic vessels and chose. Paula sighed.
The entire session had been a bust, as far as she was concerned. It was Doreen from work who had suggested she sign up for the workshop. “I loved it!” the receptionist had gushed. “Breeze is fabulous. She was able to tap into all my deepest places where I was repressing emotions and memories, and I felt like a new person when it was over. You really ought to try it,” she had advised Paula. Was it that obvious? Could everyone see that Paula was carrying around a steamer trunk full of angst? Well, she thought to herself, if it would help her sleep better at night and stop obsessing over the things she couldn’t change then it was worth a shot. All she had to lose were several hours in a long line of evenings where she sat in her empty apartment, trying to stay away from the liquor cabinet and not eat everything in the refrigerator.
Evening Breeze over Sweet Grass—she told them to call her “Breeze”—was a tall, middle-aged white woman (somehow Paula had been expecting a First Nations squaw in buckskins) in a long dress of cotton homespun tiedyed all the colours of the rainbow. Her long, gray hair was braided with feathers and beads and she wore a necklace of shells and semi-precious stones. From her earlobes dangled more feathers. Paula resisted an impulse to roll her eyes when the woman introduced herself.
The workshop was being held in a small room at the local community centre which Breeze had transformed into a hippy den. The walls and ceiling were draped with printed Indian cotton sheets, the air was thick with incense and the only illumination was from a multitude of candles. A low table in the middle of the room was covered with various objects, and the floor was strewn with rush mats upon which the workshop participants were instructed to sit “comfortably”.
Breeze chanted a prayer, at least it sounded like a prayer, invoking the spirits of all the elements to join them in their journey of self discovery, as they uncovered the demons lodged in their souls and banished them to make room for the essences of sunlight and fresh air and clean water. Paula fidgeted and felt self conscious. She had never believed in the mumbojumbo the priest had spouted on Sunday mornings when her parents had forced her to attend church, and she didn’t believe this either. But Doreen had said it would help, so she was willing, at least, to try.
The workshop participants were all women. Paula wasn’t surprised. She didn’t know any men who would sign up for this kind of activity. They ranged in age from a young mother in her early 20’s to a grey-haired crone of at least 80, with Paula herself somewhere firmly in the middle. As she looked around the room, she felt as though she were between a pair of facing mirrors, watching her reflections march from youth behind her to old age in front. She shook her head to clear it of that image.
Breeze asked the women to take items from the table, to hold them and feel them and let them evoke memories and emotions that they would reveal to the others. An orange stuck with cloves brought the grandmother to tears as she recalled the Christmas her husband had died, and the smooth marble egg induced the young mother to talk about her fears during her pregnancy that her child would be stillborn. Paula fingered all the items, but none moved her. They were just things. The other women seemed to draw from some kind of communal energy that Paula just couldn’t tap into, and she felt left out and vaguely cheated.
There had been one moment when she had picked up a a small bit of quartz and had thought of speaking about her own losses: the marriage that had ended in failure, the son dead in a motorcycle accident, her father in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s who no longer recognized her and her frustration at a job that she hated. But when she looked in the faces around her, at the expectation that she too could experience a catharsis that would set her free, her desire to unburden herself vanished and she simply passed.
Now she was to let a genie out of a bottle. Paula picked up a container of amber glass, only an inch high, a cylinder of a half-inch diameter and a quarter-inch narrow neck. A tiny bit of cork served as a stopper, sealing the contents away from the outside. Except, there were no contents.
Paula held the orange glass up to the light and watched as the candle flames warped in the cylinder. There was no genie in this bottle. It was as empty as the whole evening’s exercise had been. The other women didn’t seem disappointed at all, and she wondered if maybe it was she, Paula, who was somehow deficient, and not this white woman in the long hippy gown with the gray braids and tacky jewellery. She wasn’t even sure now why she had signed up for this workshop of self discovery.
Okay, she said to herself, here goes nothing.
She grasped the tiny bit of cork between her fingernails and pulled. Nothing happened. She sighed and looked up expecting to see her fellow workshoppers experiencing various revelations. They were gone. Evening Breeze over Sweet Grasses was gone. The rush mats and low table had vanished. Paula was sitting crosslegged on a sandy beach, the ocean stretching far off to the horizon where the sun, a glowing ball of red-gold, was about to plunge into the water. A cool breeze teased her graying hair from the elastic band that loosely held it, and she heard the cry of gulls in the distance.
What the…? she thought. Where was everyone? Where was she? She felt goose bumps rise on her arms and reached for the sweater she had taken off earlier in the evening during a hot flash. It wasn’t there. Of course not, it was on the rush mat she had been sitting on in the community centre. This was crazy.
Paula carefully got up, feeling her knees and hips complain as she unfolded herself from the cross-legged position she had been in for hours. The beach stretched uninterrupted as far as the eye could see in both directions. One way was as good as another, she figured, and started walking north, grateful that for once she was wearing sensible shoes. The golden sun started sinking below the horizon and she felt a moment of panic as she thought she might be stuck out there in the dark, not knowing where “there” was. Overhead the sky moved through the shades of sunset. In the east it was already indigo.
As Paula trudged across the sand, twilight became dusk and then night. Stars appeared in the darkening sky and she tried to pick out familiar constellations, but recognized nothing. Was she still in the northern hemisphere, she wondered? She chuckled at the thought that she had been magically transported to a beach in Australia. Paula had always wanted to visit the sub-continent. She and Harold had talked about it, back when they were still in love. Before Jonathon had…. She left that line of thought and kept walking, hoping she would find some shelter for the night. It was getting cooler and now she really was starting to panic.
To her left, the ocean glowed with a phosphorescence she tried to remember what she had learned about in nature shows from television. It was some small sea creature or an alga that created that effect, Paula thought to herself. The result was unearthly and beautiful. To her right the sand ended at a dense forest, the darkness beneath the trees holding she knew not what danger. Ahead, quite suddenly, she espied a flicker of light which grew, as she neared, into a small fire on the sand. Paula approached the flames eagerly and saw a small man seated beside them, roasting an unidentifiable animal on a stick. Her stomach growled and she realized she had not eaten for many hours.
“Hello,” said Paula. “May I join you?”
The man looked up from where he was carefully turning his dinner and squinted at her over the fire. He was tiny, wizened, more like a monkey than a man, she thought to herself. His skin was brown and leathery, and there was scant hair on his small head. He was dressed only in a short leather kilt, but a coat of animal skins lay nearby with a pack and what looked to be hunting weapons, a bow and a quiver of arrows. Paula smelled the cooking flesh and her mouth watered.
When he did not answer, Paula stepped forward so he could see her better in the light of the fire. “I’m lost,” she said, “and I’m hungry. I saw your fire. May I sit down?” It occurred to her that maybe he didn’t speak English. You’re not in Kansas anymore, she told herself. Suddenly the man spoke and she startled.
“Please,” he said. “You summoned me, after all.”
“I summoned you?” Paula gasped. “What are you talking about?”
“The bottle,” he said. “You let me out of the bottle. I’m your genie.”
“No!” cried Paula. “That’s impossible!” Yet nonetheless here he was, and here she was. Maybe it wasn’t impossible.
“I’m cooking our dinner,” he said. “Join me.”
Overcome with hunger, Paula obediently sat, not wanting to get too close to this wizened creature and yet grateful for the contact with another human being. Wait, was he human? He had said he was her genie. Were genies human? The little man scraped the meat off the stick with a sharp blade onto a metal plate, then cut it in two and placed the second portion on another plate. Paula didn’t see where he took them from, but at this point she didn’t want to know and she really didn’t care. As he handed it to her, he said, “Be careful, it’s hot.”
He was right, the food was hot. But it was also delicious. Paula wolfed it down, not caring to ask what kind of animal had sacrified itself for her supper, she was so ravenous. As she was licking her fingers clean, the man passed her a canteen and she drank deeply. It’s true, she thought to herself. Everything tastes better when you’re outdoors. Her hunger sated and her thirst slaked, she felt she could face whatever came next.
“Thank you,” she said. “Now, would you please tell me who you are, where I am, and I how got here?”
“I don’t have a name, unless you give me one,” said her host. “This is where you need to be, and you came here by opening the door, which in this case was the bottle. My bottle. Genies live in bottles, you know.” He winked then, or it was the flickering of the fire? Paula wasn’t quite sure.
“Wait,” she said. “I opened the bottle, that tiny little orange glass bottle that wouldn’t hold a teaspoonful of anything, and I let you out? Or did I let myself in?”
The genie smiled. “Either or,” he replied. “Actually, it was just the vessel. It was a bottle, an empty bottle. When you uncorked it, you opened the passageway within yourself that would bring you here.”
“But where is here?” Paula wanted to know.
“As I said, it’s where you need to be,” repeated the genie, “only it’s not really a place.”
“It sure looks like a place.” Paula suddenly shivered. “It feels like one, too.”
The genie reached for his animal-pelt cloak and put it around Paula’s shoulders. He seemed unaffected by the cool night air. “It’s all in your mind,” he said, and winked again. This time Paula was sure of it.
“Okay,” she said, “if you’re my genie, aren’t I supposed to ask you for three wishes?”
He smiled. “You can if you want to,” he said. “But what would you wish for? What would you change? What do you want that you don’t already have?”
Paula thought of all the things one demanded from genies: wealth, health, love. She wasn’t rich, but she had enough to live on and a little bit put by for a rainy day. Her health was good, the one thing in her life that had not forsaken her. Love. That was another story. She had known love, and she had known the loss of it, too. Harold had loved her. They had both loved Jonathon. She felt a sudden ache in her breast as she remembered her son, the day he had kissed her goodbye and then ridden off to school on his motorcycle, that vehicle she despised, always fearing he would have an accident. She remembered the call from the principal, the visit from the police, the condolences of the doctor in the emergency room. She remembered afterward Harold treating her as though it had been her fault.
Paula thought of her father whom she visited dutifully in the nursing home every weekend. He no longer knew who she was. She had gone from being his daughter to her mother, to his sister, to his mother and then to a stranger. She no longer knew why she subjected herself to this weekly torture, except that this was her daddy who had pushed her on the swing, who had taught her to ride a bicycle, and then a car; he had shown her how to thread a worm on a hook and cast the line out into the stream. When she thought of him, she remembered the tall, strong man smelling of pipe tobacco who would read her stories at bedtime and then kiss her goodnight, his cheek scratchy with five-o’clock shadow. How could she abandon him? Even though he did not know her, she still loved him. The tears that had refused to flow during the workshop came then.
“I can’t have them back,” she whispered, her voice choked with emotion, “can I?”
“No,” said her genie softly. “I’m sorry.”
She pulled the cloak closer about her shoulders and stared into the fire which still burned high, even though the little man hadn’t put any more fuel on it. Suddenly overcome with fatigue, she lay on her back and stared up at the unfamiliar constellations in the night sky. As her eyes adjusted, she started to pick out stars of different colours and brightnesses and meteors shooting through the upper atmosphere. As a child, Paula had believed that the stars were living beings who granted wishes. She still sometimes recited the nursery rhyme “Star light, star bright” when Venus appeared at dusk, even after she had learned that she was seeing a planet and not some distant sun. She never expected to “get the wish I wish tonight”, at least not since she turned ten. Still, where she hadn’t believed in God or Jesus, she had still kept her mind open to magic; and yet, like God and Jesus, magic had never manifested itself—until now.
“Well?” asked the genie, who seemed to know what she was thinking before she spoke. “If I had the power to grant you even one wish, and I’m not saying I’m that kind of genie, what would it be?”
Paula looked over at the little man where he sat next to the fire. In the time that she had lain on her back gazing at the night sky he had changed. He seemed taller, less wizened, younger. She considered this phenomenon, and then looked off toward the phosphorescent waves lapping at the sand. “Why hasn’t the tide come in?” she mused out loud.
“Because this place doesn’t really exist, remember?” answered the genie. He was definitely looking younger now, and taller, and bore a striking resemblance to someone she knew but couldn’t name. Paula squinted at him in the firelight. Who did he remind her of?
“I don’t know what to wish for,” Paula finally answered. “The things I want most you’ve already said I can’t have. You can’t bring Jonathon back, or restore my marriage, or give my dad back his mind. Nothing else really matters to me. I don’t even know why I still go on day to day, except that I feel I should be there for my father, even though he doesn’t even know who I am anymore.” She looked over at the genie again. “Why do you keep getting younger every time I look at you?” she asked.
The genie grinned. He looked like a teenager now, his long hair falling in unshorn locks about his face. “It’s a trick of the light,” he answered.
Paula watched as he continued to age backward, and then she knew. She sat up and turned to face him. “I want a child,” she said, “I want to care for someone, I want someone to love, someone who loves me in return. Nothing else matters. Really.”
The genie snapped the thumb and middle finger on his small right hand. “Your wish is granted!”
Paula blinked. He was gone. The fire was gone, as were the beach and the strange constellations. She stared at the tiny bottle of amber glass in the palm of her hand, and then looked up at the women seated around the low table on their rush mats. They all stared back at her. Breeze asked, “Paula? Did your genie come for you? Would you like to share your experience with us?”
Paula shook her head. “I must have fallen asleep,” she mumbled. “Sorry.”
As she was leaving the community centre, her sweater over her shoulders and her purse tucked under her arm, Paula glanced at the corkboard where messages and advertisements were posted. She saw a sign with a fringe of telephone numbers hanging off the bottom asking for volunteers to help school children learn to read, and tore one off. She smiled to herself. All was not yet lost.