“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
– John 1:5
Night. The stars glittered in the velvet sky. The smoke of a small cigar swirled in the air like a serpent. The thin knife glinted in Paul Black’s hand as he turned it around and around.
Nietzsche thought that suicide was a comforting alternative, he thought. Why ? Why do I think of that now ? A chill wind passed over him and he shuddered in the sudden cold. A nighthawk cried in the distance like a mournful Arab at a funeral on the six o’clock news.
It’s not comforting at all. He drew deep on his cigarillo and coughed the bile-bitter smoke back out. The knife lay in his hand. An invitation to oblivion. Blissful oblivion. It’s frightening, but it brings release. I could finally be out from under. He spat on the uneven stones of the patio under his feet and slouched back in his blue and white lawn-chair. He tossed the knife on to the short, wooden table in front of him with a backhanded flip. It skittered and bounced off the far side of the table, clanging and sparking on the patio stones when it fell.
Aw, Phoebe, why ? Why couldn’t you just say yes ? He sucked in on his small cigar and blew the smoke out his nose. It burned, but he managed not to cough and choke. I’ll never come out on top. Never get out from under. You were my last chance, and now it’ll never happen. He felt the tears start to well up in his eyes, again. This time he didn’t try and stop them. He just let them flow. Why not me, Phoebe ? I’d have done anything for you. Given anything.
“I believe that you dropped your knife, Mr. Black,” Ismail Ibn-Narr said smooth as silk with a voice like a dry desert wind.
“What the Hell!” Black shouted as he snapped upright in the chair. “Where’d you come from ?” Black jabbed at Ismail across the table with his cigar. “And who are you ?”
Ismail gave Black a sad, almost mournful, look and offered him the small, ivory-handled knife which had fallen to the ground. When Black didn’t take the knife, he placed it very carefully on the table. Ismail was dressed in a dark, gray suit of conservative cut. His neck tie was the color of dried blood and on his head was a dirty-dark crimson fez with a silver tassel. His face was still in deep shadow as he spoke.
“You called me,” he said, his sandy voice almost a whisper. He stepped forward into a patch of light reflected from a neighbor’s house so that Black could see his face. It was a swarthy, weathered face the color of old, worn-out leather and was partly concealed beneath an oily, black mustache and goatee. Ismail’s face would have been dominated by his hawk-like hook of a nose had it not been for his intense, sea-water-blue eyes staring steadily out from under his bushy eyebrows. “You may call me what you wish, but my name is Ismail.” He folded his hands in front of himself like a mourner, or a security guard.
“I ‘called’ you ? I don’t think I understand.”
“You had a need. A desire.” Ismail shrugged as if he thought that explained the entire Cosmos. “You said that you were willing to do anything. There was a power behind your words.” He waved at the knife. “So, I came to you.”
“You telling me you came to help me kill myself ?” Black’s cigarillo fell from numb and forgotten hands. It dropped toward his waiting lap with an anxious speed. Ismail waved his hand again and the little cigar stopped for a moment, extinguished itself, and shifted forward before continuing its flight. It landed between Black’s feet with an unnaturally loud “plop.”
Black looked at his feet with astonishment. He had not been aware of the falling cigarillo until it was too late, but he realized that it should have burnt his lap instead of dropping safely on the stone patio. He looked up at Ismail with an open-mouthed look of complete astonishment.
“If that is what you truly desire, then, yes, that is what I will help you do.” Ismail reached into his jacket and pulled out a thin cigar, longer than what Black had been smoking, and put it to his lips. He cupped his hands around the tip and light from an unseen flame lit his face quite clearly. As smoke began to curl from the cigar, Black noticed that Ismail’s hair was an unusual kind of black. It wasn’t blue-black like a Greek’s or an Italian’s, but rather it was red-black in a way that Black himself had never seen before. It reminded him of the dying embers of a campfire. His hands were once again in the reserved position of a funeral attendee. “But, I do not think that is what you truly desire.”
“Then, by all means, Mr. Ismail, tell me what I do truly desire,” Black said sarcastically. This guy must be one Hell of a stage magician. Or maybe, stage hypnotist, Black thought. Wonder who sent him ? Parents ? He sat back to await the reply, secretly hoping for the right answer, but not believing that this hokey Arab with his magic act could pull it off. After all, not even my parents know how much I want Phoebe.
“My name is not Mr. Ismail. It is simply Ismail.” He paused to stroke his beard in a contemplative manner. “I believe that you desire a bright star.” He gestured toward the night sky with his cigar. “But, she is not in the heavens. Her name is Phoebe, no ?” He sighed like a cool breeze across a desert oasis and shook his head like a teacher who is disappointed in his favorite student. “Does not your own Bible tell you,’Give not thy soul unto a woman’?”
“How ?” Black exclaimed. “How could you possibly know ?”
“It is no secret.” Ismail shrugged as if to say that there were no secrets from him. “Anyone may read your Bible.”
“No, the other thing.” Black leaned forward resting his elbows on his knees. “How did you know that I asked Phoebe to marry me and she said ‘no’ ?” His left hand strayed to the small, silver charm which he wore around his neck and ran it slowly back and forth on the simple chain from which it hung. “Did she put you up to this ?” He smiled rather like the Cheshire cat and added,”How much is she paying you ?”
“She pays nothing.” Ismail sighed again like the wind from the desert sliding through an Arabian bazaar. “Perhaps I have misjudged you, Mr. Black. I was under the impression that you were more open to some of the more, shall we say, unusual possibilities which the Cosmos presents to us.” Again the all-knowing shrug which also seemed a sort of challenge. “But, it seems that I have been misled. Thank you for your time.” He paused to draw a deep breath of smoke from his cigar and started to turn away from Black. “Good evening.”
“No, wait !” Black said, as he dropped the sterling trinket and gestured for Ismail to stop. “Tell me what you have in mind. Maybe I’m interested.”
“Indeed,” Ismail replied as he turned back to face Black. “It is as I said. You want Phoebe.” He shrugged in a way that suggested a small victory casually dismissed and waved his cigar in a circle at Black. “I will give her to you.”
“Just like that. You’ll give her to me.” Black laughed a bone dry rattling laugh and shook his head. “You’ll give her to me.” His hands hung limp between his knees. “Of all the crazy, outrageous, bizarre things to say ! ‘I’ll give her to you.’ You, sir, are a nut.”
“No, I am a djinn.”
“A what ?”
“Brought forth from a smokeless flame by the Almighty Himself, I am a djinn.” His voice grew steadily louder as he spoke and gained a rhythm not unlike a prayer. “Given power over creation and the Earth and sky and fire by the Great Creator. Set to walk about the world long before Man raised himself out of the mud and spoke his first word. I am of the first of Allah’s creations. I am of the First People. I am Djinn !” And with that last word, thunder boomed and lightning cracked the velvet black night sky.
“Oh, well, I see,” Black said. “And because you are a djinn, and I’m not, you’ll just give her to me because I want her.” He started playing with his charm again. “Free of charge ? Or, is there a catch ?”
“There is the small matter of payment, of course,” Ismail said as he shrugged in his manner, as if to dismiss the payment as insignificant. “I would require a mere two hundred years of service from you and your descendants.”
“You’re wacko.” Black paused in his absent-minded fidgeting and squinted at Ismail. “How do I know that you’ll deliver once I’ve agreed ?”
“You require proof.” It was a statement and Ismail spoke it as if he had been waiting to be tested for millennium. “Name a task and I will perform it if I am able.”
“Bring back the dead,” Black said triumphantly, like a little boy who is sure of stumping an expert.
“Who do you require ?”
“Caesar. Bring back Julius Caesar.”
“It is done,” Ismail said, and pointed out into the dimly lit yard. In the distance, Black could make out the somewhat insubstantial figure of a man approaching. He could hear the clank of metal on metal and the creak of leather stretching and relaxing. The man grew closer and more solid with every step, until, when he was but a few yards away, it was clear that he was in the costume of an ancient Roman soldier. His bearing, however, was not that of a common man, but of a leader. He was a man used to the weight of command.
“He certainly looks Roman, but how do I know that he’s the real Caesar.” Black shook his head. “I’m afraid I’ll need to see more.”
“Choose another,” Ismail said. “Select two more, and they will come.”
“Marilyn Monroe. And Elvis.” Black smiled boyishly at the djinn. “Bring back the King.” Without another word, Ismail pointed back into the yard. Caesar was gone and in his place stood a platinum blond who could be no one else but Marilyn Monroe. Next to her was a young man who’s black hair was done up in a pompadour like hasn’t been seen since the 50’s. The King of Rock and Roll lived again. “Incredible.”
“Have you seen enough ?” asked Ismail, the impatience in his voice the first real emotion that Black had seen him display. “Are you willing to accept the bargain ?”
“I have a counter offer for you, Ismail, my friend.” Black had started to toy with his little, silver token again.
“Your charm is quite interesting,” Ismail said.
“It’s Ganesha, the Hindi ‘Remover of Obstacles’. It’s cheap, hollow silver. Cost me twenty bucks.” Black paused to look down at it. “Probably cost a quarter in India.” He looked up at the djinn thoughtfully. “You want it ?”
“I can make a thousand such trinkets with a mere thought.”
“Right.” Black dropped the hollow charm to his chest. “What you want is my servitude, right ?” The djinn nodded. “Alright, I’ll trade you two thousand years service for three wishes. How’s that sound ?” There was a long pause and then the djinn began to grin an evil, cat-who-ate-the-canary smile.
“Don’t I have to sign a contract, or something ?”
“Your word is enough.”
“Very well. My first wish is that majik can really work.”
“It is already so.”
“Not stage magic, mind. Real majik. Majik like as in Merlin and Cagliostro and King Solomon.”
“It has been so since the Beginning of Creation. You have wasted one wish.”
“Not so. Now I know for sure that majik works. And soon others will too.”
“So you say, manling. Name your second wish.”
“I wish to know, understand and be able to use every spell, charm, incantation, or other similar formulae or enchantment which Mankind has ever known or will ever know.”
“Really ?” Black asked as he rose from his chair. “Do I really know everything there is to know about majik, now and in the future ?”
“Look into your own mind if you do not believe.”
“Wow,” Black whispered. “It’s all there. It’s all really there.” He bent over and picked up the ivory-handled knife from the table.
“Your third wish ?”
“Let’s slow down a bit here, friend,” Black said as he fingered the knife. “Remember, with the next wish I condemn generations of my family to some mysterious servitude. Let’s pause a moment to reflect.”
“I can wait a while longer for you, manling.” He fixed Black with a devilish stare. “Choose carefully.”
“Hey, you know I’ve got a lot of Solomon’s really good stuff running around up here,” Black said, tapping his forehead with the tip of the knife. “He had a lot of your kind working on his Temple, didn’t he ?”
“Yes, but I don’t see how that effects your choice of a third wish.”
“Then, you’re nearsighted.” Black lowered his hands to his sides. “You gave me everything. Solomon’s Greater and Lesser Seals.” He turned and locked eyes with Ismail. “Even his Most Excellent Subjugation of Spirits of Fire and Air.”
“By Allah, no.”
“Oh, yes. Submit, submit, submit. I order you in the name of King Solomon and the Arch-Angels Gabriel, Raphael, and Metatron to suppress thyself ! Submerge, suppress, submit !” Black raised the knife and cut the thumb of his left hand. He smeared the quickly thickening blood on the face of the silver Ganesha about his neck. “As the will of my mind commands thee, so shall the blood of my body contain thee. Thou shalt be required to inhabit the object which bears my life’s blood until such time as I may require thine aid. Get thee thither !” At which point, Ismail made such a screech that it drove more than one animal insane and he became as smoke in the wind.
He became a foul black whirlwind who’s focus was the hollow, silver charm about Black’s neck. He fought and screamed and cursed and threatened. But, Solomon had warned of this and Black did not let his will waver. A moment later all was as it had been. Peaceful and quiet. The stars sparkling like fine gems in the velvet sky. Ismail was no longer to be seen.
But, Paul Black could hear him calling from his new home. He had switched to begging. Pleading. Bargaining.
“I will give you endless wishes, master,” he whispered. “If only you will let me be free of this accursed prison.”
“Well, old boy, I’ll have to get back to you about that wish thing,” Black said in a cheery voice. “You’ve given me quite a new lease on life. Now, it’s about time I started paying the rent.” He fished in the pocket of his shirt and pulled out a scrap of paper. On it was a phone number. He turned and looked at the sun rising above the trees and smiled. “I wonder if Heather’s up yet ?” A new day had begun.