FUTURE IN A BOTTLE
Carlo cursed the unrelenting pulses of the sun and continued to scour the giant rubbish tip for anything he could sell. The stink of rotting refuse was worse today than it had ever been, and he tried hard not to breath through his nose.
As the morning slipped into early afternoon Carlo stretched his back and saw the small figure if his friend Raul in the distance. He wave and Raul waved back with an irritated air. Carlo knew by the gesture that Raul had also found nothing of worth during the morning. If they didn't hurry the supervisor would soon see them as he made his rounds, and chase them from the tip empty handed. This was a bad day.
In frustration, Carlo kicked over a wooden crate, and then smothered his nose with his hand as he uncovered a festering mound of maggot-ridden and mouldy something . The stench was so powerful it rose above the sour aroma of the tip, and even the gulls, circling overhead, would not swoop down to inspect it. Repulsed, Carlo made to recover the rotten mound when something caught his eye, and he instantly forgot the smell. A corked bottle of purple glass protruded from the mound, and reflected the sunlight.
Gingerly, Carlo took a rag from his pocket and pulled the bottle free with a wet, sucking sound. At first he thought it held liquor inside, but once he had cleaned it and held it up for inspection he realised the contents was not moving as liquid should. It was almost as if a cloud had been trapped in the bottle, swirling on its own private breeze.
Carlo immediately knew that a cloud in a bottle would fetch a high price, possibly enough to feed his family for a whole week. Papa would be so proud of him, even if he were drunk again. Perhaps this was a good day after all.
And yet . . .
Despite his better judgement, Carlo felt sorry for the cloud. A sudden urge came over him to pull the cork from the bottle, to set the cloud free so it could return to the sky. Perhaps it would be so pleased with him it would bring a little rain, and cool Carlo' hot skin, and dampen the sickly smell of the tip. He could keep it secret. Papa need never know. Yes. It was a good idea.
With a good twist, Carlo tugged the cork once, twice, three times and it popped free. Instantly the bottle hissed and shook in his hands. Carlo dropped it and stepped back, fearfully, tumbling and falling onto his backside. What had he done? That bottle would've fetched a good piece!
A thin, long plume of grey mist streamed from the bottle. The cloud is free , Carlo thought miserably, the bottle is worthless now .
But instead of returning to the sky, the cloud began to form into the rough shape of a person. Slowly the figure began to thicken; features became defined; clothes took colour and texture. Before long a man stood looking down at Carlo. He was dressed in a smart black suit and tie, covered with a long, heavy coat. Upon his head was a turban of black silk, and a huge black beard sprouted from his face.
Carlo frowned at the man and cocked his head to one side. “Aren't you hot dressed like that?” he said.
The man chuckled. “You have just seen a fully grown man emerge from a tiny bottle, and the first thing you ask is am I hot?” He shook his head. “Children are indeed curious beings. Aren't you the least bit curious as to who I am?”
Carlo shrugged. “I'm more concerned about papa. I've got nothing to sell for food now.”
The man gazed around the tip and wrinkled his nose. “There is money to be made here? I find that doubtful.”
“It is how my family lives,” Carlo replied.
“Through other people's cast offs?” Carlo nodded and the man rubbed his beard thoughtfully. “Don't you desire more from life than this?”
“What else is there?”
“You could be rich,” said the man, a glint coming to his eye. “Beyond your wildest dreams.”
Carlo shook his head. “My sister learnt about rich people at school. She said they were nasty and greedy. She said they waste enough food in a week to feed us for a year. I don't want to be like that. My family would starve without me.”
“Ah, but what if I could give you enough to feed your family forever more?” the man said, smiling. “What if I offered you anything you wanted?”
“Papa said I should be careful of gifts from strangers,” Carlo replied. “There's too many crazy people in this town.”
The man chuckled. “This is no mere gift, boy. I'm offering you a reward, for setting me free.” He narrowed his eyes. “But I can see you're no ordinary child. You may refuse my offer, if you wish, and I will leave you be. It is your choice.”
Carlo had never had a choice before and felt a little uncertain. “I do not have to accept if I don't want to?”
The man shook his head. “Just give the word and I shall leave.”
“You can truly give me anything I desire?”
The man held up three fingers. “Three wishes,” he said. “Use them how you will.”
“Can I sell them?”
Again the man chuckled. “No. The wishes are yours to use and yours alone. I cannot grant them to anyone else.”
Carlo chewed his lip in thought, and then, cagily, said, “I want food for my family. We shall never go hungry again. That is my first wish.”
The man bowed his head. “It is done.”
Carlo was surprised. “Just like that?”
“Yes. You have two wishes left.”
Carlo put a hand over his mouth to stop himself speaking. He was afraid he would wish for the first thing that came to mind, and waste a golden opportunity. He had to think carefully before speaking again. What did he truly want?
He wanted to go to school like his sister and learn many things. Perhaps he should wish for that. But no, if his family now had all the food they would ever need, Carlo would no longer have to scour the rubbish tip for things to sell. There was time enough to go to school now. And then it dawned on Carlo that a wish chosen carefully might make many wishes out of one.
He thought of papa and how he wouldn't stop drinking. He beat Carlo if he didn't make more money than they needed for food, because it meant he couldn't buy the cheap wine he drank all through the day. Carlo almost blurted that his second wish was to stop papa drinking, but paused and thought it through instead. What made papa drink?
It had started when mama died. They all missed her terribly, but papa had never gotten over losing her, and started drinking to ease the pain . . . That was it, Carlo realised and looked at the man, wide-eyed.
“I wish that papa would find a new mama. Someone kind for him and my sister and me.”
The man thought for a moment. “Ah,” he sighed. “Tomorrow your father will visit the doctor with a chest complaint. She is a kind and beautiful woman, and they will fall in love.”
Carlo smiled and rubbed his hands together.
The man wrinkled his nose and looked at his watch. “Tell me your final wish, please child. I do not care for the stink of this place and wish to be away.”
Carlo nodded, but did not want to rush. His family had food; papa had a new mama to make him happy and stop him drinking; he finally had the chance to go to school. What else could he want? Riches? No. His new mama was a doctor and probably earned lots of money. And with papa not drinking he would find a job and they would have even more. Carlo had everything he wanted. What else could there be?
In the distance, Carlo saw Raul again. The small figure of his friend was in the process of fleeing from the tip. Behind him, giving chase was the tip's supervisor. The supervisor hated the scavengers and was chasing Raul off, waving a big stick.
Carlo felt sorry for his friend. Raul's family was also poor, and his papa sent Raul to the tip to earn money for food, just like Carlo.
Carlo sighed with relief as Raul slipped through a gap in the fence and escaped the supervisor's clutches. He then realised he would have to choose his final wish quickly. It would not be long before the supervisor spotted Carlo talking to the man from the bottle, and waved his stick in their direction. If only he could give it to Raul.
“Come on, boy,” the man said impatiently. “Give me your final wish.”
“Can I wish that my friend, Raul, has everything that I have now?”
The man shook his head, impatiently. “You have one wish left. For your friend to have all that you have would take two wishes.”
Carlo nodded, and looked over at the supervisor. The portly man was still peering through the gap where Raul had fled. Carlo couldn't think quickly enough. He wanted to help his friend, but with only one wish, how did he get Raul everything that Carlo had? And then it came to him, like a bolt from the blue.
Carlo smiled at the man. “I want you to get back into the bottle,” he said, excitedly.
The man's expression was a mixture of shock and anger. “No,” he growled. “I have spent the last hundred years imprisoned.”
“You gave me three wishes,” Carlo said. “With my final wish I command you to go back into the bottle so Raul can find you. And when he does, you will give him three wishes of his own.”
The man swallowed heavily. “Be reasonable,” he said. “You could have anything you want. You cannot make me go back . . . I will not . . . I . . . I . . .”
“You can and you will,” Carlo said, sternly. “That is my final wish!”
His shoulders slumping in resignation, the man looked to the floor and sighed. He knew he had no choice. “As you wish,” he mumbled and immediately began to shimmer and revert to mist. With a hollow sound like distant wind, the man slipped back into his prison. Carlo ran to the bottle and stuffed his rag into the opening. He grabbed the old wooden crate and placed it back over the bottle. With a final glance around the sea of garbage, Carlo left the tip for the final time, and ran, tripping and stumbling over rubbish as he went.