Who Said Life Was Fair?

on December 18, 2011 in Fantasy

“So, you’re after the fair folk, are you?” the old lush said to me.

I’d been pointed his way as part of my quest. I had been told not to expect any information about where I needed to go or what I needed to do, but that I needed to hear what he had to say, all the same.

“I am,” I said.

“Then you need to hear my warning,” he said.

“I’ve heard lots of warnings,” I said.

“About accepting gifts, or refusing gifts, or eating food, or declining it, right? Things like that. This is a different sort of warning,” he said. He paused and then threw back his glass, draining the last of the beer from it. “I met just one fairy in my life. Saved its life, by its own admission. Three wishes it offered me… three wishes. Said it would come back on the new moon to hear and grant the first of them.”

“Did it?”

“I full-on expected it wouldn’t… I worked hard to resign myself to the notion that my one and only encounter with the wondrous was all I would get out of it, and to be happy with that. But as the month wore on and the moon waned, I started to feel a flicker of hope and yearning. You see, my father had died of a bum ticker when he was three years younger than I was, and I had a certain recollection that his father had also died young in a similar fashion… so it had often been in the back of my mind that a similar thing might happen to me.”

“You wished for a good heart?”

“Good health in general,” the old man said. “So of course the blasted thing came back, and it heard my wish… that my heart and liver and other organs and parts should be strong and healthy until the day I die. And no sooner than the words were out of my mouth than it struck me that the quickest route to fulfilling that one would have been to kill me on the spot, but no, the fairy just crossed its arms and said ‘It is done’ and damned if I didn’t feel the difference right away, and double-damned if I haven’t felt it since. So, the fairy told me it would be back in a month for the second wish.”

“What did you wish for?”

“This time I knew it was on the up-and-up, so I started to plan ahead. I had my health, and could expect to live a good long life, barring misadventure… as a fit man, I could look forward to a few more decades more of hard labor followed by a miserly retirement. So I decided what I really wanted was a certain measure of comfort, security, and leisure to live out my life in style. That’s not one wish, of course, but the thing that secures all of that is. I decided to wish for money. A million dollars. That’s a chunk of change with the power to change lives today, but back then… well, it was a sight more than it is now. I could have wished for more, but I didn’t want to abandon my old life. A million dollars could be explained. It seemed like a credible windfall.”

“So what happened?”

“Well, the fairy returned, and heard my wish… which was for a million dollars to come to me in some fashion that was legal and brought no misfortune to anyone else… and it suggested I spend the next afternoon removing a certain stump from my property. Under there was a cache of old coins, worth just over one million dollars even after the tax man took his share. And I went a little wild with it, for a while, though my brother-in-law was a banker and he invested the lion’s share of it for me, and I’ve done quite well by him over the years.”

“So two wishes worked out well,” I said. “What happened with the third?”

“Well, the fairy again said it would be back when the moon was new. And I had health and I had wealth,” the old man said. “So for my third wish I wanted something special, something extraordinary… something that couldn’t have been come by any other way. I didn’t know what I wanted when the fairy left, but as the weeks slipped by I thought back to all the times in my life I’d been thirsty and couldn’t beg up a drop of drink to wet my whistle. I knew my liver was good for the duration, so I decided to make sure that never happened again.”

“You were rich,” I said. “You could have bought beer anytime you wanted. You could have bought a brewery.”

“Right,” he said. “But the same could be said for nearly anything I might have wished for. Besides, I said I wanted something special. So I made up my mind to wish that I had but to snap my fingers and the glass nearest to me would fill itself up with whatever I wanted most to drink, the best quality. I had a good week and a half to fix this wish in my mind, to think on the possibilities… the exotic liquers I could try, the fond remembrances I could relive. I could sample thirty-year scotches and the greatest wine collections the world had ever known. And if ever I met a man who didn’t believe my good health and great fortune were a gift from the fairies, I could strike them dumb just like this.”

The old man gave a loud snap with his fingers. I looked at the glass he’d set on the counter, but it remained empty and inert.

“…what happened?” I asked.

“The little devil never showed up!” the old man said. “That was its trick, you see.”

“It gave you perfect health and more money than you needed?”

“It made me believe,” the old man said. “It made me hope. It made me wish… those first two things, they were things I wanted. They were things I asked for. But they weren’t a wish like this was a wish. I’d never felt a deep-seated yearning for a million dollars, you see. I’d prayed for health, in the off-hand sort of way that you do, but I had never fallen to my knees and begged for it.”

“You still had your money,” I said.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “If it had said two wishes, I would have been satisfied. If it had said two wishes, I would have walked away perfectly happy. I wouldn’t have been disappointed if from the start it said I could have one wish, or it offered its thanks and went on its way. But it promised three wishes, and it spread them out so I had time to get used to the idea, to come round to the way of thinking that this was how things worked.”

“But have you ever in your life since then actually gone thirsty?”

“No,” he said. “Not thirsty, exactly. Not for lack of drink.”

“Thanks for the warning,” I said.

“But you still mean to press on.”

“If I’m offered three wishes, I’ll know what not to do,” I said.

“If you’re counting on two, you’ll get one,” he said. “Or three but something else will go wrong. Or you’ll be offered something else, something that isn’t wishes. You see, the lesson here isn’t how it played out with me. The lesson is about what happens when you trust a fairy.”

“I think I could manage a long, rich life,” I said.

“You think I don’t feel lucky?” the old man said. “I do, if only because I’ve heard from others who’ve had their dealings and come away much worse for it. But no matter how lucky I am and how lucky I feel, I also feel cheated… and I’ll always feel cheated. It’s a bigger thing than you think.”

“I could stand to feel a little cheated if I had your life.”

“That’s what they all say, when they find me,” the old man said. “But they all find me in a bar.”

“I won’t make the same mistake you did,” I said.

“No, you’ll make your own.” The man raised his empty glass. “Here’s hoping you come out the other end of it.”

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