We liked this one because it reminded us of one of those great old tall tales…
By James McCormick
Old Cyrus had seen many things during his seventy-eight years, but he had never seen anyone walk out from a twister before. It was the damnedest thing. He was sat outside his grocery store, polishing a cheap old lamp, when he felt the wind get up. A tumbleweed rolled past and then it happened. The twister came spinning down the dry, dusty path that ran through the little town. As it reached his store the man stepped out of it.
The twister continued down the track but the figure stayed put, studying his new surroundings. After he had taken a good look he glanced down at himself. He was wearing a rancher style hat, Texan boots, jeans and a white t-shirt. He seemed to approve of the attire for he allowed himself a small nod of satisfaction.
After a moment or two he became aware of Cyrus watching him. He gave the old man a smile and walked over to him.
He stopped at the store’s porch and ran his eyes over the black, crinkled face of its owner. He tipped his hat and said something, but in a language Cyrus had never heard.
‘Sorry young feller, or whatever you are,’ the old man replied. ‘We only speak English, and sometimes Spanish, around these parts.’ The figure’s eyes widened as comprehension lit his handsome features,
‘Ah,’ he responded. ‘The language of the Angles and Saxons; the greatest knights to fight for Christendom.’ Cyrus’ face was blank, for all he knew the man might as well still be talking in a foreign language. The newcomer looked down at the cheap tin object Cyrus had been polishing,
‘Are you the owner of this lamp?” he asked. Cyrus gave a shrug,
‘I guess so,’ he said gazing at the ornament in his skinny hands,
‘Old widow Larkin gave it me when she couldn’t pay her bill. To tell the truth, I didn’t really want it, but she and Martha, that’s my late wife, were such good friends that I couldn’t really refuse. She’s a good woman, just fallen on hard times is all.’
The figure nodded gravely, ‘The world is full of injustice my friend,’ he rejoined.
Cyrus leaned back in his rocker and put the lamp down on the porch. He took a crushed pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, removed one and tapped it lightly on the arm of his rocker.
‘Sure is,’ he said. ‘Had my own share as well. Guess like most folks.’
‘I do not doubt it Mr …’
‘Call me Cyrus,’ the old man said. The stranger nodded,
‘Your words carry a great and eternal truth to them Cyrus. Life is full of tragedy. But, strange as it sounds, I can change all that, at least for you.’
Cyrus produced a lighter and lit his cigarette. He took a puff and studied the figure from behind a cloud of blue tobacco smoke.
‘How exactly?’ he asked. The figure placed a boot on the porch, ‘I have certain … abilities.’ Cyrus squinted at him.
‘You saying you got magic powers?’ he asked, illustrating the question with a circular motion of his cigarette. The figure nodded.
‘I am indeed,’ he answered. Cyrus nodded,
‘So you’re a kind of angel?’ the old man asked, his voice matter of fact. The stranger smiled, ‘In a way,’ he replied. ‘I’m your Djin. You summoned me here by rubbing that lamp.’
Cyrus took the cigarette from his mouth and frowned. The expression caused his white, bushy eyebrows to meet in the middle.
‘Your an ‘Injin?,’ he asked. The figure shook his head,
‘No, I am your Djin, or maybe as you translate the word, genie.’ Cyrus let out a weak, rasping chuckle that brought on a small bout of coughing. The stranger folded his arms indignantly.
‘You don’t believe me?’ he asked. Cyrus gave a shrug of his bony shoulders,‘I don’t know. A man who travels by twister should be given the benefit of the doubt.’
‘Then why do you laugh?’ the figure demanded,
‘Timing,’ the old man replied. ‘Just timing.’ The figure shook his head.
‘I do not understand,’ he said. Cyrus took another draw on his cigarette and sat forward a little, engaging his visitor more fully.
‘When I was a young man,’ he began, his coal black eyes taking on a far away look, ‘more years ago than I care to remember, I had dreams. Believe it or not I used to be one of them ambitious types, yes sir. One of them ambitions was to build up this little business here, except it wasn’t so little in them days, into a chain all over America, maybe even the world. I wanted to be one of them millionaires.’ His eyes narrowed in a challenge,
‘I could have used your help then Mr Genie.’
The figure looked over the old, somewhat dilapidated shop, ‘That could be your first wish,’ he said. ‘You know a Djin grants three wishes.’ Cyrus thought for a moment then shook his head,
‘What would I want with a business empire at my age? I’m an old man, soon for my box.’ He sighed as he added, ‘Ready too.’
The figure shrugged, ‘That also is no problem. I could make you young again.’
Cyrus, much to the figure’s consternation, still looked far from impressed.
‘Nope, that’s no good either.’
The figure looked puzzled,‘Why?’ he demanded.
The old man took another tote on his cigarette.
‘Because,’ he answered, ‘being young is no use to me if I can’t be with the only woman I ever loved. I lost my May eight years ago, and I’m kind of looking forward to being with her again. If you’d come when she was dying from her heart you could’ve done something. Unless you’re telling me you can bring the dead back to life again.’ His old watery eyes challenged the figure to say he could.
‘Well, the figure muttered, gazing down at his boots. ‘I can’t exactly do that.’ Cyrus gave a humph to indicate he had thought as much. He took the cigarette from his mouth and let out a series of smoke rings.
‘You see Mr Genie. You’ve come a bit too late to help me. Twenty or thirty years earlier and I would probably have jumped at the chance.’
The self-assured manner that the figure had exuded when he had introduced himself was rapidly fading. He rubbed his square chin rubbed his chin, a troubled look on his face. He was silent for a moment as he ran the problem through his mind.
Finally he raised a forefinger to indicate he had come up with a solution, ‘I have an idea Cyrus,’ he announced with a satisfied smile. ‘How about I send you back in time for your first wish? That way you could be with your May again. For your second wish I could make you young again and for your final wish you could be rich.’
He folded his arms triumphantly, his face beaming.
Cyrus’ eyes widened with interest. He usually came across as laid back and somewhat whimsical concerning life and things in general. But that was the way he had become to be able to endure the hardships life had chosen to throw at him. An hour never went by without him thinking of his May. They had had only one child together, long ago, but she had died while still a baby. All he had now was the store, and that was no more than a shack that got three customers a day if he was lucky. For these reasons the figure’s proposal sparked his interest.
‘Well, what do you say?’ his would be benefactor asked. Cyrus went to put the cigarette to his lips but it just hovered there, lips and hand disconnected.
He stared at the figure gazing up at him, ‘I’d be as spry and as full of hope as I used to be?’ He asked.
The figure nodded,‘Of course,’ he answered. ‘The second wish, the one to make you young again would take care if that. Once you are back in time from your first wish I’ll put you in your twenties again with all that entails.’ He gave Cyrus a wink. ‘So will May. Think about it, a young couple in love.’
Cyrus gave a wheezy chuckle,‘And I’ll be one of them millionaires as well?’
The figure grinned,‘Of course, the last wish takes care of that.’
A broad, nearly toothless smile broke out over the old, black man’s face, ‘Okay Mr Genie,’ he said. ‘You got me interested. I’ll take those three wishes. So clap your hands or whatever it is you do and let’s go.’
The figure bowed, ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘But, just one thing first.’ Suddenly, from nowhere, a piece of paper appeared in one of his hands.
Cyrus eyed it curiously,‘What’s that for?’
‘Oh, nothing really,’ the figure answered. ‘I just need you to sign your name at the bottom, that’s all.
‘So, it’s kinda like a contract?’
‘I suppose you could say that. But it’s no more than a formality really.’ He handed it to Cyrus and the old man noticed that the cigarette he had been holding had changed into a pen. He started to read it, mumbling the words as he did so.
‘You don’t need to study it,’ the figure said. ‘There’s nothing to it really.’ Cyrus held up a hand,
‘If there’s one thing you learn being in business is that you always read a contract.’ The figure held his breath as he watched the old man. Cyrus was going to read it all, every damn word. When he had finished he lowered the paper in his lap. He scratched his head,
‘What’s does it mean when it says my ‘unseen self?’, he asked, tapping the relevant part of the contract.’ The figure looked uncomfortable,
“It means, err, … well. All it refers to is your non physical body. The part you can’t see. That’s all.’ He said all this very quickly. He threw the old man a broad smile,
‘It’s not important though Cyrus. You’ll be young again, young, rich and with May. You won’t even miss this unseen self. Just think of it.’
Cyrus frowned, doing just that. He rocked to and fro for a good minute on his chair as he considered the stranger’s offer. A couple of times he studied the figure before him, his eyes narrowing a little as he did.
Suddenly the rocker stopped. The old man let out a soft chuckle and then much to the figure’s surprise shook his head,
‘No deal,’ the old man said. There was an amused tone in his voice.
‘What do you mean?’ the figure asked. He regarded Cyrus as if he had gone mad. ‘You want to pass up my offer?’
‘Yep,’ the old man replied with a nod of his head.
‘Why?’ the stranger asked his arms thrown up in a gesture of disbelief.
‘Cause, I reckon you aint no genie,’ Cyrus answered. He picked up the lamp and ran an eye over it.
‘And this aint nothing but a piece of tin.’ He tapped an inscription on the base,
‘This old thing was made in Mexico. It used to be used for pouring out tequila or something. There aint no magic in it and it didn’t call you here.’
The figure opened his mouth to protest but no words came out. Cyrus grinned,
‘I found you out,’ he went on. ‘I never had much education, and I never went to Sunday school, and I aint been the best of Christians either, but … I know enough to realise who you really are. My momma, God bless her, used to warn me about you. But I never thought I’d meet you, no sir. It’s a lucky thing I found you out. My time’s nearly up, and I’m ready to go. You were putting thoughts in my head that just plain didn’t belong there.’
The figure stared at him. His handsome features hardened. There was no attempt at a smile now. Cyrus noticed that he did not look so handsome anymore; but he would have been hard pressed to say what exactly had changed in his appearance.
‘You’re making a mistake,’ the figure said in voice much deeper than before.
He pointed a finger at Cyrus, ‘You are old, rotting away as I look at you. Very soon you will take your last breath, and you may very well end up with me anyway. You said yourself you haven’t been the best of Christians.’
Cyrus was unruffled, ‘If you was so sure of that you wouldn’t have tried to trick me in the first place, now would you?’
He shook his head, ‘No, maybe I haven’t been the most pious of fold but I’ve led a good life. I never hurt no one, always tried to do the right thing. And when I do die I’ll be back with my May. I know that sure square enough.’ He challenged his tempter with his almost toothless smile,
‘You aint got nothing to offer me. Now scat, and worse luck next time.’
The figure glared at Cyrus with pure malice, ‘Stay here then and rot, old fool,’ he cried. He looked ugly now, and his lip curled back on one side to reveal large sharp teeth. He looked as if he wanted to tear the old man apart but Cyrus wasn’t scared, he’d signed nothing, the figure had no power over him.
The figure raised his hands and then with a cry of rage disappeared in a cloud of smoke. After he was gone a strange odour filled the air. Cyrus supposed he had had his first whiff of brimstone.
The old man gave a shrug and looked down. The paper had gone and his pen had turned back into his cigarette. It had almost burned down to nothing.
‘Well,’ he muttered to himself. ‘I never liked salesmen anyway.’ He took his final draw on the cigarette. He was ready to go now, to drift off to sleep. There was no fear. He leaned back in his rocker, closed his eyes and gave a weary sigh.
Later that day, Mrs Price, a big woman with just as big a heart, came by for her weekly supplies. She found Cyrus as she often did, sat in his chair, dozing the hot afternoon away.
‘Cyrus,’ she called. ‘Wake up you lazy bones. It’s your best customer.’ But Cyrus didn’t move. With an anxious speed the woman mounted the porch and bent over him. He looked asleep but …, she felt his face, it was cold and the muscles beneath the skin stiff. She felt the pulse on his neck to be sure.
‘Well, Cyrus,’ she said in a voice full of tenderness, ‘You was just saying the other week how you still missed your May, and now I’m sure you’re back together once again.’
The smile that lingered on the old man’s face suggested she was right.