by Henry Gasko
The Yucatan jungle lay before me, dark and unknowable. Much like my future, I thought. I was heading into the jungle, and I intended to stay there until I found the true Meaning of Life. You know, the sort of thing you do after graduating with a PhD in Philosophy and then finding the only job offers are for the midnight shift in a banking call centre.
When you have no destination, any path will do. I walked for about two hours, heading straight into the heart of the jungle, day-dreaming about all the great things I could do with my life if only I was given the opportunity. The air was humid and stifling, and the hum of the insects was pervasive. Birds laughed and shrieked in the tree-tops at random intervals, and I imagined they were somehow aware of my thoughts, and were mocking my every ambition and endeavour.
I had set off from the small native village just after lunch. The mushroom omelette I ate before leaving had left me feeling a bit woozy; I smoked a bit of dope to settle the nausea, and when that didn’t do the trick I smoked a bit more. Despite these ministrations, I felt myself getting drowsy. I came to a small clearing with a burbling stream and a patch of soft ferns, and decided to rest for a few minutes. Moments later I was asleep.
I awoke with a start. It was fully dark and the birds were silent, but the buzzing of the insects was claustrophobic. The distant sky above the canopy of trees was sprinkled with stars and a cool mist was descending. I felt in my back-pack for the flash-light I had bought at a market, the kind that uses three AAA batteries and has a cheap LED light whose glow barely reaches the ground.
My fingertips must have brushed the switch as I reached for it, because, lo and behold, there he was! There was no puff of smoke, only a sudden cold breeze that blew through the clearing and shook even the tops of the trees. In the dim light, I saw his form materialize, as if the swirling mist was shaping him from some long forgotten memory. And then there he stood, a classical genie, complete with turban and puffy pantaloons and pointy slippers, his arms folded across his massive chest.
“What is your wish, O Master?”
“What?” I said stupidly, shaking my head to dislodge the effects of the mushroom that was still swirling around in my brain.
“Your wish, Master,” he said testily. “You know. Like the Arabian Nights.”
What in the world was an Arabian genie doing in Mexico? Probably just an hallucination, I thought. But what the hell; I had nothing to lose but a few more brain cells. And if he was real, this would be the luckiest day of my life, my chance to escape from the long and stultifying future that I saw stretching out before me.
“Seriously?” I asked. “Anything?”
“Almost anything,” he said.
“So there are strings attached?”
“A life without strings would unravel very quickly,” he said profoundly.
That seemed to make perfect sense at the time. Maybe I was still a bit high.
“Don’t I get three wishes?” I asked. “I thought that was traditional.”
“An urban legend,” he said. “One wish only. Better make it count.”
I thought about the possibilities for a while. “So I suppose no meta-wishes either?” I asked. “You know, wishing for a thousand more wishes.”
“You got it, kiddo.”
That was unfortunate but not unexpected. So one wish only. I needed a few minutes to think about this.
I quickly dismissed any thoughts of a pecuniary wish. What good was a million dollars, or even a billion dollars? If I had learned one thing in my short life, it was that money could not buy happiness. My grandmother had told me that when I told her that I was planning a career in Corporate Finance. I think it was just before she convinced me to study Philosophy instead.
And if my Philosophy degree had taught me anything, it was that all the great philosophers agreed with Granny: money didn’t bring happiness. But they didn’t agree on what actually would do the trick. In fact they all came up with different answers to that question. Fortunately I, who had just finished studying all of the greatest minds in history, was in a perfect position to answer that question once and for all. Just as well, because one chance was apparently all I was going to get.
The obvious choice was eternal life. But we’ve all read that story. I get older and older until I am begging for death to take me into its bosom. But I can’t die, and I end up in a wheelchair looking like a corpse, my mind totally gone, drooling into my porridge while one of my distant descendants is stuck with the pleasure of looking after me for the rest of his or her life, before handing me on to the next generation.
Maybe eternal health? That sounded better, but there were still some caveats. I could be a raving lunatic (if I wasn’t already) but still be perfectly healthy. Or I could be radiating perfect health but find myself out on the street, not a penny to my name. No, eternal health wasn’t sufficient either. But I had only one wish….
How about eternal happiness? That sounded better. I couldn’t be happy if I was dead, could I? And I certainly wouldn’t be happy if I was poor or sick, or old or in constant pain. I probably couldn’t be happy if my family and friends were all dying around me either, so this might cover them too. Sort of a meta-wish but still within the rules.
The genie was starting to tap his foot impatiently. “Come on, I haven’t got all millennium,” he said.
“Okay. Here it is. I wish for Eternal Happiness.”
“You’re sure?” he asked slyly.
I sensed some sort of trick, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“Yes, okay. Eternal Happiness,” I said emphatically.
“Would you like a few Abracadabra’s to go with that?” he said with a cheeky grin. “Sorry, just kidding. Here goes.” He spun around once on the points of his shoes, waved his hand in the air and pointed directly at me. “Eternal Happiness!” he shouted in the loudest voice I had ever heard.
Then I waited some more. This is a very interesting experience, I thought, but I didn’t feel a whole lot different. I was happy to be there, in the jungle, talking to a genie. And I was coming down from my high, and that was good too. I had a sudden realization, almost an epiphany, that no one should cloud their judgment with artificial stimulants. But somehow I was expecting a bit more.
“Is that it?” I asked.
“That’s it,” he said.
“But I don’t feel very different.”
“No sense of ease? Of abiding peace with your surroundings?”
“Yes, a bit I suppose. But is that all?”
“That feeling will grow,” the genie said confidently. “In fact, you will come to appreciate whatever fate lays before you. In time, you will even accept the fact that you will grow old and die, just as every man must grow old and die.”
I vaguely remembered a first year lecture in Ancient Philosophies. “You mean ….?” I began.
“Yes,” said the genie. “You are now a Stoic. You will be eternally happy with your lot in life, whatever it may be.”
I remembered that first year course, the names of those Greeks and Romans who thought they had life figured out: Zeno and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. I couldn’t remember too much about the philosophy, only that the main gist of it was: accept your fate. How easy it must have been to proclaim that everyone should accept their fate, when you yourself were ruler of the most powerful empire on the planet. Yes, I’m sure Marcus Aurelius had no trouble accepting his lot in life.
But my lot? Intelligence in the top two percent of the population, so I could fully appreciate what the future held for me. Wasn’t that another tenet of the ancients: know thyself. I guess I would have a lot of time to get to know myself while I was sitting at my call desk at three in the morning, waiting for the next person to ask me why their bank account was overdrawn.
“No!” I shouted. “Not a bloody Stoic! I don’t want to be happy with my life. I want a different life, a better life!”
“So long, sucker,” said the genie as he faded back into the mist.
You bastard, I wanted to shout. But the words wouldn’t come. Instead I felt myself overwhelmed by an ocean of equanimity, struggling against the tide of acceptance that was washing over me, sinking ever deeper into a quagmire of eternal happiness.
I was born in a displaced persons camp in Yugoslavia after World War Two, was raised on a vegetable farm in Canada, and have lived in Australia for the last 40 years. I have recently retired from a career as a data analyst and medical researcher, and have returned to my first love, science fiction, as both a reader and (hopefully) an author.
I have previously had stories published in the anthology “Dreamworks” and in Australia’s Aurealis magazine, and have recently won the 2018 Sapiens Plurum short story competition in America.