The Bargain

by Jennifer Loraine

 

 

The two women sat at the table in the breakfast nook becoming acquainted over their morning coffee while a diapered baby sat in a playpen watching them intently. He appeared to be a little less than a year old and was the very picture of a sweet, innocent babe. The tot picked up a baby bottle lying on the floor of the playpen, put the nipple into his mouth and began to nurse without ever taking his eyes from the two women.

"So..," the first woman said, "you had the house built and moved in. That was what,...six months ago?"

"About that, I think," replied the second woman. She looked at the calendar hanging on the wall. "Letís see, Colin and I will have been here six months next week. We like it up here, even though itís so far from town. I would have preferred to be a little closer to town. Still, I moved to the country to have privacy and Iíve found it. Youíre my closest neighbor and youíre at least a half mile away from me."

"Two miles," said her neighbor succinctly "Itís two miles from my house to yours. Although my property line does start about three-quarters of a mile from your house."

The woman reached over and put her hand on her neighborís arm and said, "Well, itís close enough to be neighbors and far enough away to be good neighbors." They both chuckled at that.

"I wanted to ask you Peggy, it can be frightening for a young woman living out here alone without a man. I havenít seen anyone other than you and Colin living here. Are you widowed or divorced?", said her neighbor.

Peggy shook her head and said, "Neither, Iím married, but donít expect to see a man around here, Maureen."

"Iím sorry, Peggy. I didnít mean to open any old wounds. I shouldnít have asked. Itís none of my business, really," said Maureen.

"No, itís okay. Itís just....Itís just that I donít want the story to get around. Itís one of the reasons we moved out here. Iíd rather not have everyone know about the private details of my life." She looked into Maureenís eyes and said, "I can tell you, I think. It seems like weíve known each other all our lives. After what you told me about your ex-husband, I think youíd understand," said Peggy.

Maureenís expression became serious and she said, "Honey, whateverís happened to you or whatever youíve done, you can tell me. I can keep a secret. The Hill Countryís full of people with secrets. Youíre not the only one."

"Well,..." Peggy began, "Itís a long story. I donít know if you have the time. It might take all morning."

Maureen patted Peggyís hand and said, "Honey, I have all the time in the world. Donít worry about that, I always have time to listen to a friend."

Peggy hesitated, "Itís not that I think you would tell anyone. Itís just that I donít think you would believe me. The story is ...well....itís just a little too strange for anyone to believe. You had to be there."

Maureen smiled and said, "Why donít you let me be the judge of that, honey."

Peggy nodded and pointed to an antique oil lamp on the mantle. "It all started with that lamp about nine months ago. You see, my great-grandfather was an archeologist specializing in the Hebrew culture of the Solomonic period. He led an expedition to Saudi Arabia to find evidence that Solomonís empire had extended deep into what is now Saudi Arabia. He found some ruins, a temple complex I believe, that he thought marked the southernmost border of Solomonís empire. His theory wasnít very well received. The archeological community was pretty uniform in their opinion of his discovery. He was wrong, dead wrong. At least thatís what they thought. My great-grandfather never got a chance to show any of his evidence. The temple complex was Egyptian, period. Case closed. His funding dried up and he was forced to abandon the dig.

He came home and retired from the university in disgust. He never spoke of it again. My great-grandmother had died early in my grandfatherís life, while my great-grandfather was on a dig. My grandfather was raised by my great-grand-aunt. My grandfather never forgave his father for his motherís death. He believed his father had killed his mother by leaving her at home to raise his two children while he went off for a year or two at a time on digs. When my great-grandfather died, my grandfather packed everything in a steamer trunk (Thatís the one sitting by the wall next to the fireplace.) and put it in the hay loft of the horsebarn. My father died when I was ten and I went to live with my grandmother and grandfather. My grandmother died when I was nineteen, while I was away at college. It was cancer, I think. Grandfather wouldnít tell me what she died of. After I got my masters and finished graduate school, I went to work.

Within a few years, I found a man and fell in love with him. We dated for a year, then we got married. The first few years were good, but we were poor. After a few years our marriage palled, my husband was a good man but he believed that the man should rule the household. (Yes, I am that old! Just wait until youíve heard the whole story, then youíll understand!) When he found out I couldnít have any children all the joy seemed to go out of our marriage. He blamed me for not having a family. We couldnít adopt, we didnít have enough money. I know he was upset the he couldnít provide enough money for us to adopt. Even with me working there wasnít enough money.

He became authoritarian and tried to control every aspect of our lives. He seemed to think if he watched every penny, there would be enough money. But it didnít help. Then my grandfather died. We had some hope for awhile that his estate would help us out of the hole we were in, but that didnít pan out. My grandfather hadnít paid his taxes on the ranch for years. When he died, the county wanted full payment, with interest, immediately. We sold the ranch at auction. After the backtaxes and the funeral expenses were paid, there was nothing. Well, almost nothing. All that was left was my grandfatherís old clothes, the household furniture, his wedding ring and the old steamer truck with no key. I didnít want to break the lock and there wasnít enough money to pay a locksmith, so the trunk just sat there. We kept some of the furniture and gave the rest of the furniture and the old clothes to charity. I put my grandfatherís wedding ring in my jewelry box for sentimental reasons, it wasnít worth selling.

My husband became morose, all he could think about was the mistakes he had made in his life. He seemed to think that if he could start over, he would have done better. I tried to tell him that I loved him and that it didnít matter to me that we werenít rich, but he wouldnít listen. He would sit for hours going over everything he had done in his life. He kept talking about the mistakes he had made. Sometimes I thought he secretly believed our marriage was one of his mistakes. His authoritarianism became unbearable; he treated me like a little girl. Once in a while, he would blow up over the smallest things, then brood and pout for days afterward. It was like living with a superannuated five-year old. I would have divorced him if there had been enough money.

Strangely, though, I still loved him. I guess not being able to have a baby had hit me pretty hard. I knew our poverty wasnít his fault. I wanted to hold him and tell him it was okay, that everything would be alright. I still wanted to take care of him. I tried to think of everything I could to raise some money.

After a while, I got to thinking about the steamer. I thought maybe there might be something valuable inside. If I found something, he might feel better. I went to the library and got a book on locksmithing. I read that the trunk has whatís called a warded post-type lock and can be easily picked. I went to the hobby shop and bought some music wire and cut a small piece, then bent the end into a key shape. I waited until my husband was taking a nap (I wanted it to be a surprise) and tried to open the lock. It took me about an hour to pick the lock.

When I opened the trunk it was filled with my great-grandfatherís journals and a collection of loose bronze artifacts. I decided the artifacts might be valuable to a collector so I decided to clean them up. I knew better than to use metal cleaner or chemicals on them, but I figured that plain old water and a soft cloth was safe.

Since the lamp looked like it was the oldest piece, it was probably the most valuable. I left it for last. If I damaged any pieces I wanted the damaged piece to be the least valuable in the collection. I washed the lamp in warm water and let it dry in the kitchen drainboard. (This is where the story gets strange!) When it dried, I tried to buff out the green patina with the cloth. All of a sudden the damn thing started hissing at me. I dropped it on the floor; I guess I thought there was some vicious insect inside. The lid, which had been corroded in place, popped off and rolled on the floor in circles. Then a green gas started coming out of the lamp. It was horrible; it smelled like something had been dead a week.

I screamed for my husband and woke him up. He stumbled out of the bedroom and found me in the kitchen, knee-deep in a reeking green fog. He shouted at me and demanded to know what I had done. The mist gathered itself up in the center of the kitchen and formed itself into a tall column, then began swirling around. My husband panicked and tried to drag me from the kitchen. I couldnít leave, I was fascinated. It looked like I had a miniature tornado in my kitchen. (Really, Iím not making this up. It really happened!) When the tornado took the shape of a man, my husband froze. I mean he couldnít move. He was absolutely terrified.

The mist solidified into a green-skinned, seven-foot tall, muscular humanoid with Semitic facial features and naked except for a tight little white loincloth. It stretched, smiled and then it spoke; "Ahh........After seven thousand years I am free again. Who art thou mortal, that thou hast freed me? I would reward thee for thine deed.," he boomed down at me.

"Me?," I asked, "Iím nobody. You want to talk to my husband!"

The genie laughed and said, "No milady, it is thee I wouldst to speak to, for it is thee who freed me from the accursed lamp. What is your desire? I am not great among genies, but I will attempt to fulfill thine wishes. Dost thou wish to be wealthy?"

"Wealthy?," asked my husband, suddenly awakening from his trance. "You can make me wealthy?"

The genie turned, cast a baleful eye on my husband and said, "I spoke not to thee, son-of-slime. Interrupt me not whilst I bargain with the lady. Else thou fash me unduly and I smite thee!" My husband quailed and slipped behind me. "Some protector he is, hiding behind his wife!", I thought.

"Bargain?," I queried.

"Yes, milady, a bargain. Thou hast done me a service and honor requires that the debt be repaid. What wouldst thou have me do?í

My husband nudged me in the back and whispered "wealth!"

The genie glared at him severely and said, "Silence, worm!"

I told him, "My husband wishes for me to ask for wealth and I would like to please him. Could I ask for that for the both of us and still ask for something myself?"

The genie smiled and said, "Thy generosity does thee credit, milady. What dost thou wish for thyself?"

"I would like to have a baby," I said.

The genie frowned sadly and said, "If it is thy wish to be with child, then I cannot fulfill thine desire milady. Some fates are written in the heavens. Prithee Milady, choose another wish."

I tried again, "My husband has said he would like to be young again so that he could live his life over and not make mistakes. Is that possible to do that while keeping all his memories and mental skills?"

The genie chuckled and said, "No, milady. It is not possible to live without making mistakes, else I would not have spent seven thousand years in a lamp. However, it is possible for ye to be younger, perhaps twenty-three years old, and retain all your mental abilities and memories. However, thy wish Milady would be subject to some conditions."

"And what are these conditions?," I asked.

"First I would remind Milady, that although thy wish is to please thy husband, my bargain is not with him, and therefore he cannot receive the greatest benefit! I will grant ye both the boons of wealth and youth on this condition; that thy husband shall be youthened into a babe for a minimum of one-quarter of his life. I have grown tired of the sound of his voice and it pleases me that this should be so. Three days after I have granted thy desires, he will change into a babe. After three months have passed thou mayst but utter a magic word I shall reveal to thee and he shall be restored to an age of twenty-three. After nine more months have passed he will again youthen into a babe. After spending three months as a babe thou may utter the magic word again and restore him as before. This shall repeat for a period of one hundred and fifty years, after which the two of ye will instantly die and vanish into dust. Would this satisfy thee?"

"Well...I guess...I guess if itís okay with my husband.......I mean Iím not the one who will be a baby."

The genie nodded and said to her husband, "What dost thou say, oh-misbegotten-son-of-a-diseased-camel? Remember, these wishes were thine and not thy gracious wifeís. Speak and quickly, lest I forget the courtesy due to thy wife and disembowel thee on the spot! I have decided that she shall have the babe she desires. Since thou hast not provided a babe for Milady to cherish and love, then for three months out of every year of your worthless life, thou shalt be her babe! Think well, oh scion-of-serpents. Hast thou been good to your wife? For one-quarter of every year, she will be thy mother. She will be able to return any ill you have done her ten-fold. Thou will be utterly in her power. Dost thou trust her absolutely? For it is on her word and hers alone that thou shalt be returned from infancy. An she chooses to remain silent, thou shalt remain a babe."

My husband looked at me and told the genie, "My wifeís a child who is incapable of living for any length of time without my supervision. Iím confident that she will return me to my rightful place."

I nodded at the genie and he said, "So let it be written in the heavens that I have dealt fairly with this daughter of Eve. I have granted her desires, both spoken and unspoken. It is done."

The genie laughed again and handed me a envelope; inside was a Texas lottery ticket, a list of stock/commodity buy and sell dates, a horoscope for each stock and instructions.

The genie grinned broadly at me and said, "Seven thousand years ago I would have caused a caravan loaded with silver to have appeared at thine village gate. I believe that thou shalt find this method easier to explain to thy rulers. When the stock brokers ask how thou hast ascertained the correct stocks, give them the horoscopes. They will think thee mad, but will not suspect thee of illicit trading. Within three days thou shall have all that thou hast wished for, milady," he said and whispered a word into my ear, then he vanished.

That same night, all six numbers on the ticket were drawn in the lottery. I was the only winner. Overnight we were worth forty-three million dollars. I followed the instructions and took a small part of the winnings and invested it in stocks and commodities with specific buy/sell orders for three months. At the end of that period, we were worth one-hundred million dollars. I hired an architect, had the house built and moved in. Although I didnít realize it at the time, the genie had granted all my wishes, even my wish for a baby of my own!", said Peggy looking over at Colin with a smile.

Colin returned her smile with a childish grin of his own, he clearly adored Peggy. She turned back to her friend and said, "Thatís it, Maureen. Thatís our story."

Maureen looked at the baby in the playpen and watched as he absently put his right hand next to his face, put his thumb in his mouth and started sucking. "Do you mean that thatís your husband in the playpen? Thatís him?" demanded Maureen incredulously.

She stared at the tot in the playpen and watched as drool rolled down his chin and dripped off, ran down his stomach and into the top of his diaper. He returned her stare with an intelligent gaze of his own. Maureen would have had a hard time believing Peggyís story except for that damnable comprehending look in his eyes.

"Thatís him," Peggy assured her.

"And he understands everything weíve been saying?," Maureen asked. Peggy nodded agreement.

"Thereís something I donít understand. The builder seemed to have built this house in a hurry. If I remember right, it only took about three months. Is that right?," Maureen asked.

"Thatís right, This house was built with three shifts of carpenters and laborers. They worked on it twenty-four hours a day. It cost about double the amount it normally would have. It only took fifteen weeks to construct this house. I was in a hurry to get out of town into a house with some privacy."

Maureen looked puzzled, "The genie said that he would be a baby one-quarter of the year and he had to start the year being a baby, is that right?"

Peggy nodded.

"But you said that you won the lottery and invested that took three months, building your house took three months and youíve been here six months. Thatís a total of one year, minus the four weeks, or one month, that you were short. He should still be an adult. What happened?"

Peggy laughed and said, "Oh that! Well, after I won the lottery, remembered what he had said about me being a child. His off-hand insults made me so mad! I was tired of his superior attitude and petty dictates. I decided I didnít like being treated like a little girl. I have a masters degree and am perfectly capable of handling my affairs. Heís the one who acted like a child! He moped about, pouted, and threw tantrums when we were poor. And when the chance came to tell the genie what we needed, he hid behind me like a small child hiding behind his Mommy. If it wasnít for me, weíd still be living in poverty! I started thinking what life would be like when he returned to adulthood. He really was much too difficult to deal with as an adult. I didnít think I could put up with his autocratic paternalism again."

Peggy leaned close to Maureen and said in a conspiratorial voice, "So I never said the magic word!"

She laughed gaily and said, "Iím happy with him just the way he is! I have no intention of ever changing him back. Heís the baby Iíve always wanted! Iíve been so happy since we won the lottery that Iíve barely noticed the passage of time. The months have just flown by for me. I donít think poor little Colin can keep track of time. Life for Colin has become an endless stream of baby bottles, feedings and diaper changes. Iím sure Colin hasnít realized that the three months were up ages ago."

Sitting in the middle of his playpen, the betrayed infant who had been carefully listening to his mother/wife screwed up his face and began to cry.

 

Finis coronat infans

 

Copyright © 1995 by Jennifer Loraine