Leylo wiggled her toes in the mud of the river. It was squishy and cool on her bare feet while the rest of her baked under the mid-day sun. Some of the older children splashed in the water as their mother’s filled jugs to carry back to the village. The water was brown like the mud.
Her brother called for her to come down into the water, and she called back that she was watching for crocodiles.
There weren’t any crocodiles in their river, at least none that she had ever seen; the truth was that Leylo did not like the water. It was nasty and brown, and even when you poured it into a cup bits of dirt and other things swirled around in the bottom. When she swam in the river she always felt dirtier afterwards.
Ayeeyo said that the dirty water would make you sick, but mother said that not drinking made you sick too.
Leylo caught a snip of motion out of the corner of her eye. There was something tumbling along the river bank toward her, herded along by errant gusts of wind. Ayeeyo said that the wind came from the spirit world and blew the will of the gods to men, so Leylo watched the thing to learn where it might go. At first she could not see it clearly, but as it came closer she realized that it was a bottle, clear and plastic with straight sides, the kind of bottle that rich folk carried in their packs with water inside. She could tell by the way the wind was blowing it along that this one was empty.
It came closer and closer, rolling along down the riverbank, until at last it happened to come to rest in the mud right by Leylo’s feet.
She picked it up and looked at it. There was no label on the bottle, no way of telling where it had come from or how long it had been tumbling along at the mercy of the wind. It made a crackling sound in her hand when she squeezed it. She rubbed the mud off the side with her sleeve and saw that there was still a little bit of water sloshing around in the bottom of the bottle. She held it up to the sun. It looked clear and clean. She had never tasted water that came from a bottle before.
She twisted the cap with her little fingers. It stuck at first, so she wrapped the cloth of her shirt around it and twisted harder.
At the instant the cap came free there was a pop and a flash and she was knocked back into the mud as a plume of fire and smoke burst out of the bottle. She picked herself up from the mud and inspected herself. It seemed that she was uninjured, though her hair and clothing was now clotted with mud. Her first thought was that mother would surely be very angry with her for soiling her clean clothes.
But that was before she saw the woman sitting on the rock next to the bottle. And once she had seen the woman, it was difficult to look at anything else. For one thing she was enormous. Leylo had seen fat foreigners before, but never like this. The fat seemed to hang off of her in much the same way a woman’s clothes might hang off of a little girl playing dress-up. She was enveloped in it, as if her own body had swallowed her up.
And that wasn’t even the strangest thing.
The strangest thing was that the woman’s skin was a dark purple color, like the night sky just before sunrise.
And yet, no one else seemed to have noticed the large purple woman at all which could only mean one thing. Leylo swallowed hard and asked, “Are you a spirit?”
The woman laughed, a big deep laugh that made her folds of fat wobble and shake in a way that made Leylo want to laugh too. I suppose I am after a manner of speaking, said the woman.
Leylo did not understand the words the fat woman said, but somehow she understood what was meant.
“Who are you?” Leylo asked.
My name would mean nothing to you, said the fat woman. But my purpose is simple. I am here to grant you three wishes. She considered Leylo for a moment with a look of puzzlement and then asked, Do you understand what that means?
Leylo nodded. “It means you will give me something that I want.”
Anything that you want, said the fat woman. Even things that would otherwise be impossible.
This question seemed to surprise the fat woman. You know, she said, most people never get around to asking that.
“Where you trapped in that bottle?”
That is a matter of perspective, said the fat woman. Are you trapped in this village? In this country? On this planet?
“But the bottle is so small,” Leylo insisted.
This made the fat woman laugh again, perhaps even harder. When she finally stopped she said, Well, so are you. Now, tell me, what is your first wish.
Leylo thought about this for a long time. Finally she said, “Water.”
“Yes,” said Leylo. “Water that is good for drinking. That will not make my family sick. Water that will not run out. Water that will flow out of that bottle,” she said, pointing at the plastic bottle that lay in the mud, “Forever.”
The fat woman considered this. You understand you could ask for anything, she said. Anything at all. You could be the ruler of this village. You could have all the gold in the world.
“But I don’t know anything about ruling,” Leylo said. “And gold is for rich people.”
You are very young, so I feel that I should warn you that these wishes don’t always turn out like people want them to. What if you left the bottle on its side and the water kept flowing out forever? You could flood the whole world.
Now it was Leylo’s turn to laugh. “It would take a very long time for that to happen. Someone could find the bottle and put the cap back on before then.”
That does sound reasonable, replied the fat woman. And with a flick of her hand water began to glug from the bottle into the mud.
Leylo snatched up the bottle and drank long and deep. The water was cool on her lips and sweet on her tongue. “Thank you,” she said, when she had drunk her fill.
The fat woman smiled. And what is your second wish?
Leylo thought for a moment. “Do I have to make it now?” she asked.
“Then I should like to wait if it is all the same to you,” said Leylo. “I’m only six. Perhaps I will learn more about wishes as I grow older. I would hate to waste them all in one day.”
As you wish. When you are ready, I am here. And with that the fat woman disappeared in a puff of purple haze.
Leylo sat with her back against a tree, staring at the bottle in her hand. The moon was high and bright, bright enough to illuminate the river, now thin and shriveled from its former strength. For a long time, she did nothing, only stared into the distance, tracing paths in her mind. The wind picked up and rustled the grass behind her, and it reminded her of that spirit wind all those years ago that had blown the bottle to her side and brought the spirit of the fat woman and her three wishes into Leylo’s life.
“Now,” she whispered, so low that none but the wind could hear. “I’m ready.”
The fat woman appeared, sitting on the bank next to the tree, though Leylo thought she did not look quite so fat now.
“I’m ready to make my second wish,” Leylo said.
Yes? And how did the first one turn out?
“Well enough,” replied Leylo. “The water in the river is poison, but thanks to the bottle our whole village has enough to drink. It was a tricky at first because people wondered where the water came from, and my mother knew that if they found the bottle they would try to take it from us. But Ayeeyo craftily molded it into the side of our cistern and told the people that the spirits had granted us the gift of fresh water daily. Which was true after a manner of speaking. And no one questions the spirits. So our village has had clean water to drink, even in this drought.”
You have done well with your first wish, said the fat woman. Especially for one so young. Many do not fare so well. You have waited a long time to call on me again.
“I was not sure what I wanted until now.”
And what is it that you want?
“There is a young man,” Leylo began.
The fat woman began to laugh her deep laugh. And you wish for him to love you?
“No!” Leylo almost shouted. And then, again, “No. If I wish for him to love me I would always know that it was only because of the wish.”
Beauty then, said the fat woman. I can make you the most beautiful woman in the world.
“I thought of that. But it is no guarantee. And beauty fades over time.”
It need not.
“You would have me be a freak? A beautiful statue, frozen forever with one face? What would people think of an eighty year old woman with the face of a flower. No. That would be madness.”
The genie smiled as if thinking of a private joke. Very well. What then?
“I have decided to wish for…contentment,” said Leylo. “The young man loves someone other than me. That is his right. I cannot change his heart in good conscience. But you can change mine. So that is my wish. That I should be able to be accept his choice whatever it might be without jealousy.”
The fat woman seemed puzzled. I have been doing this for a long time, she said, and never has anyone wished for what you have asked.
“Can you not do it?”
Don’t be silly child, of course I can do it.
And with that Leylo’s heavy heart lightened. She still loved the young man, but now she could accept the fact that he did not love her.
I suppose you’ll be wanting to wait for your final wish.
“Yes,” said Leylo. “If you please.”
How many years this time?
“I won’t know until I am ready.”
When you are ready, you know where to find me. And with that she disappeared in a puff of purple smoke.
The room smelled of disinfectant and disease. Leylo stood at the foot of the bed staring down at the little girl lying there. A bevy of machines beeped and whirred to themselves all around her. The little girl’s breathing came slow and shallow.
This time when the fat woman appeared there was no flash or purple smoke. By now she’d grown thinner still, though she was still quite fat.
The fat woman looked down with pity on the child. Who is she? A granddaughter? Great granddaughter?
Leylo shook her head. “I have no children of my own, and therefore no grandchildren or great grandchildren.”
I see. You did not marry your young man then?
Leylo smiled. “I have had three husbands,” she said. “And I have outlived them all. My ‘young man’ as you call him was the second by way of coincidence and circumstance. I was never able to give any of them children.”
You could have wished for children.
“I almost did,” said Leylo. “But in the end I chose the path that has led me here.”
She looked out the window of the hospital room down on the square below. A hoverbus cruised past, light spilling out of its windows into the night, occupants cocooned in their tiny world as it hissed through the darkness. None of them worried for fresh water to drink. None of them feared wild animals in the night.
I couldn’t help but noticing the name outside this hospital, the genie said, as a curious smile played on the edge of her mouth. Leylo Toolmoon Children’s Hospital. Has a nice ring to it.
Leylo said nothing to this.
You’ve had many years to think on this last wish, the fat woman said. Have you made up your mind? You could wish for an end to all disease.
“Disease is only one of the many tools of death,” Leylo answered.
An end to suffering then.
“But how can we grow if not through adversity?”
Immortality for all.
“And soon the planet would be completely overrun.”
What then? Why have you summoned me?
“Save a life,” Leylo said. She pointed a wrinkled bony finger at the child lying in the bed. “Save that life. Let her live out her years a full and natural life.”
“I think the better question is, ‘why me?'” Leylo said. “I was only one girl, and yet the winds blew you to me, put more power into my hands than anyone should ever be allowed to wield, let alone a six year old girl. And now, here I stand, blown along for all these years by the winds of chance and choice, into a world I barely recognize all these years later. And it wasn’t because of a wish. It was because of a life.”
“My life.” She took a deep breath. “This girl may do nothing with the life you give her. But I have lived an extraordinary life. And the one thing I have learned is that a single life matters more than all the gold, and all the power, and all the pleasure the human mind can imagine. So that is my final wish.”
There was no flash of light or rushing of wind. The fat woman was simply gone as if she had never been there at all. And in the bed the little girl opened her eyes and looked up into the tear-filled eyes of Leylo Toolmoon.
“Please miss,” she said, “I’m very thirsty. Can I have some water?”
Albert Berg was born in the swamps of Florida and quickly developed a gripping writing style by wrestling with crocodiles. It is said that he hypnotized five gators in a row by the age of nine with his melodic prose and infinite imagination. Albert is a true menace in the arena because of a steadfast ability to remain true to his roots of thoughtful contemplation despite the hurricanes that pass all through his state. You never know what you will get from Albert, be it sentient paper products or religious squirrels, but you do know that behind the flash there will be a well thought out story that will make you reflect on your own life. Albert is the author of The Mulch Pile and A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw.