But oh—to be free…to be my own master; such a thing would be greater than all the magic and all the treasures in all the world!
The Man Who Freed Me
I'll do it. I'll set you free.
He said it with such ease, it almost seemed like carelessness. He fully believed in his words, but it was clear as a desert sky that he hadn't given them much thought. So it wasn't surprising that he was able to say them so confidently. So freely.
Of course I didn't believe him. The phenomenal, cosmic, immortal, all-powerful part of me (which was just about all of me) scoffed at him. A poor street boy with absolutely nothing to his name. Of course he'd use my power for himself; he had everything to gain and nothing to lose! Like all mortals, he'd want power, wealth, or…well, most wishes fall more or less within those two categories. Everything else—the mundane, fanatical, eccentric, or plainly bizarre wishes—is lumped under "miscellaneous" (If I consider something bizarre, you better believe it's weird. Like the one guy who wished for a five-legged camel. Don't ask).
It is a commonly held notion that jinnis are all-knowing as well as all-powerful. This is false. But at times, even I inadvertently slip into the belief that I am omniscient, since it would seem to fit right into the whole phenomenal, cosmic, immortal, and all-powerful thing. So I thought I knew everything about Al within fifteen seconds of meeting him. After serving hundreds of masters, I guess you could say I've become pretty good at reading mortal man in all his stages of life, tiers of social status, and personality types. Al, frankly, fell into the youthful dreamer class, with an unusual amount of luck and a few more ounces of intelligence than your average Jarood. For the mortals in this category, their dreams exceed their given lot in life by a long shot. A very long shot.
That's where my powers come in. I'm the instant fix for every person with dreams, which is basically the entire human race. But I'm a messiah of sorts for those poor fellas at the very bottom of the ladder, the ones who don't even have rungs to climb up.
Later I'd discover that Al didn't need rungs. He could scale walls or fly on a carpet instead. The kid didn't seem too remarkable when I first met him, though. I just made him feel like he was. Went through my standard routine for youthful dreamers, complete with the mountains of baklava, harem girls, dancing elephants, and my classic lie—er, line: so what's your wish, I really wanna know.
Having granted thousands of wishes over a span of more than ten thousand years, I had long since stopped caring about what mortals wanted. I was no longer curious about what lay within the hearts of man, because after my first ten masters I pretty much had the pattern down, and after my first hundred I had a truth theorem.
Man is selfish. Man is greedy. Man is woefully insecure. He will make wishes accordingly.
I asked Al for his first wish in seriousness then. And he did something completely unexpected.
He tricked me.
He tricked a phenomenal, cosmic, immortal, all-powerful, nearly omniscient being. I was flabbergasted. Plus, he didn't do it in a mean spirit; he was just clever, in a friendly way. I've had masters try to bully me into giving them more wishes, threaten to destroy my lamp (…those were among the more dimwitted humans I've met) if I didn't assassinate someone or bring back their dead mother, and employ all types of plots to try to leech more out of me. As if three wishes for practically ANYTHING within the realm of one's imagination weren't enough. But none had managed to trick me before.
Then he dropped another bombshell. He asked me what I'd wish for.
I started to think this kid really was special. He had managed to throw me off guard twice in the span of a few minutes. Not just that, though. The content of this second surprise was mind-boggling. No one had ever asked me such a question before.
And as I answered him hesitantly, sinking out of my "overdrive" personality into the depths of fearful truth about the one wish woven uselessly into the core of my soul, my nearly omniscient mind started whirling, zooming ahead down paths that I had never before dared to consider or expected to discuss with humans.
Could it be? Could this kid be the one? The one who'd prove my truth theorem about mankind wrong, who'd step beyond his own selfishness and petty desires and actually—
I'll do it. I'll set you free.
He said it with such ease, it almost seemed like carelessness. He fully believed in his words, but it was clear as a desert sky—
Oops, sometimes the eternal part of my nature gets jammed in infinite loop format. Getting back on track now…
I accepted his promise with a handshake, slightly bewildered and not able to believe him, but not knowing what else to think, either. The kid bucked conventions with an ease that seemed to come naturally.
Right after he gave me that shock, though, Al hopped neatly back into the predictable youthful dreamer paradigm. He wanted a girl. He wanted love. I'd seen his case plenty of times before. He didn't see me roll my eyes as he rambled about the qualities of the damsel who'd caught his eye.
Smart. Uh, not the first descriptor I expected, but…
Fun. Okay, the kid's young and adventurous, so he's looking for a girl with some verve.
Beautiful. There it is. The previous two adjectives were just a poor attempt to convince me he isn't as shallow as all men are.
Princess. Aha, therein lay the problem.
It was never my place to question what my masters wanted. Most never asked me for advice, anyway. I just did what they asked and hoped my conscience wouldn't be burdened with too much guilt over it. I can't kill, but that doesn't mean I couldn't bring a man to the brink of death and leave him trapped in excruciating pain for months or years or eternity, as the most black-hearted of my masters have wished. I can't make people fall in love, but that doesn't mean I couldn't conjure the strongest aphrodisiacs and mind-control potions known to man so that the most desperate of my masters could enjoy a mocking semblance of requited love. I can't bring people back from the dead, but that doesn't mean I couldn't reanimate the bodies of dead lovers into mindless dolls for my masters with necrophilic tendencies.
So helping one poor boy tell a lie (albeit a big one) was hardly a blip on my moral radar screen. I gave Al a fake identity convincing enough to fool an entire kingdom.
As I marched him through the streets of Agrabah in an outrageous parade I probably put a bit too much magic into, I started to understand why he was the only one who had been allowed into the Cave of Wonders in all these years. The "diamond in the rough." I guess I had overlooked the fact that he was one of the few who had actually had to prove themselves worthy of my power through the trials of the Cave. The basic story of my existence has gone like this: sit in the Cave for a span of a dozen to ten thousand years until the latest "DITR" (an abbreviation commonly used by magical beings dwelling in the Cave) shows up, pass from master to master in rapid succession until wars start breaking out over possession of my lamp, and automatically return to the Cave once one of my masters dies (i.e., is killed) before making his final wish. So in actuality, only a handful of my masters have been certified gold at heart. In the especially long period of time I spent in the Cave before Al found me, I guess I had grown a bit forgetful about this fact.
I saw that he did indeed have a better heart than most, because he didn't spare more than a glance and a brief "oo, ah" of naïve amazement at the spectacular wealth and glamour I had surrounded him with. His thoughts were all on the woman he was hoping to woo with all the flashiness and finery and giant inflatable gorillas.
And I thought with a hesitant inward smile that maybe this kid would be the one after all. Maybe he would carry through on his oh-so-casual promise to free me from my fate of bondage to the will of mortals.
But I couldn't get my hopes up. Al might have been good-hearted enough to get into the Cave of Wonders, but he wasn't so good-hearted that he wouldn't lie to get what he wanted. That was what nagged at me. He had woven a big messy lie to win the princess' heart and refused to be honest with the person he claimed to love the most in the world.
So if he wouldn't be real with his lovely princess, how could I expect him to be real with me? I was just a slave. Forget the phenomenal cosmic powers. A jinni is, in essence, nothing more than a slave.
He had burrowed his way into my (proverbial) heart, though. I liked Al. I enjoyed being around him; he was a genuinely nice guy, not a snob or a megalomaniac like a lot of my other masters. Maybe my words from my song-and-dance routine for youthful dreamers had substance this time after all. I could actually be friends with this master.
Turns out he had burrowed deeper than I thought. I came the closest I ever had to breaking the rules of the lamp because of him. When I emerged from my lamp into dark, freezing water and saw Al bound and gagged, seconds away from drowning, I felt real panic for the first time in a thousand years. I granted a wish that wasn't supposed to count since people are technically required to be conscious in order to wish for anything. But all I could think about was saving his life, and as I knew the limits of my powers better than anyone, I knew I couldn't bring him back if he did die.
Once he regained consciousness and stopped coughing up seawater, I admitted to him that he was more than just another master to me. Of course, I wrapped the remark in humor to dampen it, mostly for my own sake. Getting attached to masters is not a good idea. Female jinnis are more susceptible to Master Attachment Syndrome (MAS) as written in many folk tales, but it is possible for males as well. I still half-expected that after Al's next wish I would go on to serve some other human and never see him again. But I thought maybe, maybe since I had saved his life, he would more likely keep his promise, and then I'd be free to stick around and enjoy his friendship, perhaps even take him along when I traveled the world like I'd always wanted.
Things were looking up for him after that teeny setback of almost drowning at the bottom of an ocean. Jafar's cover was blown, the Sultan loved him, and most of all, he had the princess. He had successfully gone from a street rat to royalty, the next ruler of Agrabah. He was the perfect poster boy for the Agrabahan Dream.
But my truth theorem held fast. Particularly the third clause: man is woefully insecure.
Man is selfish and greedy too, but Al wasn't really those things. He was just afraid. He suddenly saw reality, a reality without the magic of a jinni, where he couldn't handle the responsibility of being Sultan. He wasn't hungry for power. He just wanted love. I guess no one told him life isn't that simple. Youthful dreamer indeed.
I didn't realize just how much trust I had placed in the boy until he told me straight-out that he couldn't fulfill his promise.
Wasn't this what I had expected all along? Didn't I deliberately keep my hopes in check to insure against the likely event of this happening? Why did it hurt so much to hear Al say it, then?
Because he wasn't just a master reneging on one of his whims. He was a friend breaking a promise.
There in the familiar darkness of my lamp, I started to think, think harder than I had in a long time. I had to give Al credit for pushing me to exercise my nearly omniscient mind almost at full capacity.
I overturned my earlier thought that he wasn't selfish. Of course he was selfish, just like every other master I've had. He was looking out for his own happiness, his own life prospects for the next, oh probably forty years, fifty if he was lucky, that he had left in the world. Try measuring forty years against eternity, Al. Forty years of comfort and luxury, being with the woman you love, ruling a kingdom that thinks you're the most handsome, charming man to ever set foot within its walls. As for me…I'll just continue my eternity of serving the greedy, violent, and petty whims of humans, only 5.6 percent of which are Cave-certified DITRs. And considering you're a DITR and still managed to let me down like this, I don't have high expectations for future ones.
Eternity, Al. Can you wrap your clever, street-smart little mind around that?
When you tell the princess you're going to love her forever, do you really know what that means?
And when you imagine that being with her will guarantee you everlasting happiness, do you know that actually means only about forty years that'll pass like a breeze? Not to mention her dazzling beauty will only last for half that time.
Is it obvious yet that I can be really cynical? You've seen past my "overdrive" personality by now, haven't you?
But self-pity has to end sooner or later. Isn't that what they say?
Eh, that doesn't apply to jinnis. We have all of eternity to pity ourselves, slaves of a system we can never break free of on our own, with only one way out which happens to be out of our control. The likelihood of gaining freedom is close to nil. Al briefly raised that figure to a decimal that would actually register as more than a row of zeroes on a standard abacus, but it quickly plummeted back down into negligibility.
Turns out that self-pity can be stopped, though.
The next time I emerged from my lamp, I met a new master. It didn't even take me fifteen seconds to categorize him. Dark, sinister, and ugly were just frost on the tip of the iceberg. In his eyes I saw the mark of the worst kind of master a jinni can have. The kind that would knowingly, calculatingly force a jinni to the edge of breaking the three prohibitions. Especially the first one.
Even after all the destruction and tragedy I've wrought throughout the millennia at the bidding of ruthless masters, I still can't turn off my sense of guilt when I have to carry out a wish that's utterly wrong. Tearing the palace from the ground as the citizenry scattered in absolute panic, sending heavy slabs of masonry and chunks of earth smashing down all around them, passively watching the chaos I was causing (apologetics might say it's really the master that causes chaos, but it's the jinni's hands that actually do it), I just had to avoid Al's face.
The guilt I felt at screwing over yet another kingdom in my long history of causing political upheavals actually overshadowed the accusatory thought that none of this would have happened if it weren't for Al's decision to back out on his promise. I didn't place the blame on him. He was just a kid. He was hardly seventeen, for crying out loud. Of course he would make mistakes. Of course he'd get cold feet at the thought of becoming the supreme ruler of a kingdom that he'd thus far only known from the back alleys and refuse-littered streets. Of course he'd want to keep living out his dream of a perfect life with the princess, the only good thing that had probably ever happened to him in his life of poverty.
I couldn't meet his eyes as he flew up to me on the carpet and tried in vain to stop me. I couldn't meet his gaze of betrayal even as I still felt the sting of how he had betrayed me. Because I was almost certain that it would all be over very shortly. The Law of Transference dictates that if a jinni is passed to a new master before an old one completes his three wishes, the death of the latter will still suffice to send the jinni back to the Cave of Wonders.
Jafar would kill Al before he could make his last wish. And I'd disappear back into that deep underground cavern, left alone to remember the only master who had been my friend, and wonder about the fate of the kingdom and the princess Al had loved and tried to protect.
I thought it was the end when Jafar trapped him in a minaret and sent it careening toward the far reaches of the continent. But for the following half-day he didn't die. I kept expecting to be whisked back into the Cave at any moment, but it didn't happen. I suppose I should have been grateful, but it was almost equally hard to just stand by helplessly and watch my new master abuse his power to no end, torturing the kindly Sultan and forcing the beautiful princess to serve him in chains. (Why is it that evil domineering men with newfound power always order beautiful women to hand feed them fruit? It's one of the most overdone methods of sexist humiliation in history; I should know.)
I clung to the knowledge that Al wasn't dead (yet) and the hope that he'd somehow make his way back from the North Pole or wherever he had ended up. If he managed to return by the time Jafar made his last wish, then he could set things straight with his own last wish. It would have to be a carefully planned wish in order to clean up a mess of this magnitude, and I started thinking hard about what it should be. I wasn't supposed to tell my masters what to ask for, but I could definitely give strong hints and suggestions.
He showed up before I could think of anything good. I had never been so glad to see a human in the entire span of my existence. His chronic lying and the broken promise were entirely forgotten. I just wanted things to be set right. I didn't want to return to the Cave with the knowledge that yet again I'd done more harm than good in the world.
But suddenly, he didn't need my help. Not that I could have offered any, but his mindset was completely different from before.
Hey, I'm a street rat, remember? I'll improvise.
He said it with such ease, it was definitely careless. He'd reached the point where he had nothing to run on but his faith in himself.
Careless couldn't begin to describe what I thought his plan ended up being.
I mean, goading an already power-crazed, power-glutted sorcerer into wishing for the near limitless power of a jinni?! I didn't think even a severe head injury from being slapped around the room by a giant cobra would lead him to taunt the enemy like that! At that moment, Al earned himself a place at the bottom of my list of dimwitted masters. Way to go, Al. Way to go indeed.
WAY TO GO INDEED!
The true genius of his plan clicked in my head as those all-too-familiar golden shackles appeared on Jafar in his new monstrous jinni form, which looked like a floating advertisement for bodybuilding magic potions. I held my breath as he made his rapid descent into the black lamp that would be his prison, unable to believe that Al had managed to pull off another stunt that I was too slow to follow.
The kid was special, no doubt about it.
After I only too happily took care of the black lamp, its two occupants still squabbling loudly inside it like an old married couple, I turned with a beaming smile toward Al to congratulate him again on how truly amazing he was.
And stopped short as the hardness of reality caught up with him, with both of us, once again.
He was saying goodbye to the woman he loved, after all he had gone through to try to win a place by her side. After seventeen years of scraping by on stolen bread crusts and tenuous dreams, he had finally gotten his lucky break with the power of a jinni at his disposal. But now it seemed it had all been for nothing. He wasn't Prince Ali. He was Aladdin the street rat.
To me, he was just Al.
And Al was so much more than any of the labels and categories that fate, society, the law, and jaded jinnis like me had confined him to. To inspire a jaded jinni to have faith in humans, to capture the heart of a princess without even really trying, and to save an entire kingdom from doom with his careless confidence and sheer ingenuity…he was definitely more than just a Cave-certified DITR. He was a hero, inside and out.
But finally I saw with absolute clarity that he wasn't free. Just like me. Just like every conscious, sentient being. For all these years I'd been too busy wallowing in self-pity to realize that we're actually all the same, jinni or human.
His bonds were not the shackles of a lamp. They were the chains of lettered law and human prejudice, barring him from being with his one true love. His first wish, hasty and full of loopholes as it was, was really just a wish for freedom. He didn't try to change the object of his love like so many of my other masters; he didn't even think about mind-altering potions or lowering the princess to his own social status. Instead, he looked at himself and decided that he was the one who had to change. As I got to know Al better, I realized that even if he hadn't fallen for a princess, he probably still would have made the same wish. To break free of the chains he was born with and destined to die with. That yearning was so strong within him that he'd continued lying to the princess when she'd demanded the truth, when it was painfully obvious that she, like all women, preferred the real thing to a charlatan.
In the end both of us wanted the same thing. Freedom. But there was only room for one of us to have it.
I felt a proverbial spear stab through my proverbial heart the moment he and the princess shared what they must have thought would be their last embrace, the unspoken knowledge that there was only a dead end ahead hanging like a dark curtain between them.
And I knew what I had to do.
No, not what I had to do. What I wanted to do, what I was freely choosing to do for the sake of a friend, for once not bending to the whims of another's will. The thought that this was my choice gave me the courage to say the words. To tell him straight-out to use his last wish to make himself a prince again.
I didn't want him to bring up the promise he had made before. It would make things a lot harder—
But Genie, what about your freedom?
Of course he brought it up. He wasn't the self-absorbed brat I had rashly pegged him as. He was just a kid with a heart of gold, unpolished maybe, but full of love for a wonderful girl. A kid who wanted freedom just as badly as I did, and would only have forty quick years to enjoy it if it was granted to him, while I'd have an eternity. Looking at it that way gave me the additional courage to shrug past the bleak image of the future that awaited me once he made his last wish.
Hey, it's only an eternity of servitude. This is love.
I wasn't talking just about the love between him and the princess. I was talking about me, too. An eternity of servitude wasn't that bad, I tried to justify, if I could have more guys like Al as my master, small as the chances were. People who could teach me friendship, love, and all those other mushy things jinnis are only supposed to understand from a wish-granting distance, not experience for themselves.
I was so absorbed in preparing myself to let go of my greatest chance at freedom that I almost didn't hear him say the words that would change my life forever.
Genie, you're free!
For the first time in my existence, I was at a complete loss for thought and words. The moment I had been waiting and yearning for my whole life had finally come, to my utter disbelief, and I had no idea how to react. It turns out I didn't have to react. It was the first wish I had completely no control over. No blasts of power left my fingers, no monkeys got turned into taxi cabs for my own amusement. Power didn't leave my hands. My shackles did.
And as the glow of the old brass lamp faded for the last time, my little gilded prison clattering to the floor, I felt the age-old laws that had governed my existence disintegrate into nothingness. I can't describe it. It's a feeling only a jinni that's been freed can understand, and since I'm the only one in history, I guess there's no one else who knows. Maybe the closest thing in human experience would be finding out that death no longer has power over you, feeling in the very fabric of your being that the darkest specter that's haunted your life is now gone, and you will never be enslaved by it again.
The euphoria of my first few seconds of freedom, of the new life I could live, almost swept me into the next continent on a tidal wave of bliss. There was so much to do, so much to see, so much to experience and live and celebrate! There was—
There was the man who had made it all possible, standing there smiling sadly up at me, having just sacrificed his own love for someone else's eternity. The man who freed me.
He wasn't a kid. He was a man, and my hero.
He needed to know that if he didn't already. I couldn't stop the tears as we hugged and I told him as best I could, feeling like one eye was leaking gratitude while sorrow trickled from the other.
Little did I know that Al wasn't the only one capable of surprising a jinni.
The Sultan freed him with a simple, firm decision to change the law that was the sole barrier between Al and happiness. Supernatural sucker for metaphors that I am, I was the only one to actually hear it come down with a resounding crash as Al found his freedom in the arms of the princess.
And a very old memory suddenly popped into my mind, a memory of one of the thousands of wishes I had granted. It was one of the rare wishes that I remembered with fondness and not guilt or disgust. My master was a young slave boy who hadn't thought to use his first two wishes on anything other than bare necessities—a simple filling meal and a new set of clothes. He tried running away then with his best friend, a fellow slave, and they were both caught and thrown in a dungeon. Without even consulting me on what he should do, he used his last wish to set his friend free, and prepared to spend the rest of his own life in bondage. He didn't expect at all that the other boy would come back to save him too.
It stayed with me for a long time, the image of those two foolhardy boys running away into the night, laughing softly together in exultation over their new freedom. But in the following millennia of serving masters that were much less childlike and granting wishes that were much less innocent, I lost that precious memory in the midst of how jaded I had become.
In Al's eyes, though, I saw an exact mirror of the simple joy of that young master I had once had, joy that can only come from knowing real freedom for the first time…and having a real friend to share it with. He and I were those two boys running away from that dingy prison and the specter of visible and invisible chains, exulting not just because we were finally free, but because we were free together.
And so to this day, my bond with the man who freed me is stronger than the immutable covenant between master and jinni, the contract between owner and slave. The bond between two free souls who are friends will always be stronger than any chain or law. My only regret is that Al is mortal, but he just laughs and reassures me that we'll deal with that obstacle when it comes. There's too much about our new lives to enjoy to worry about that now.
I spent my first day of freedom circling the world ten times over because I couldn't decide where to go first. Meanwhile, Al was welcomed with open arms into the palace just as he was, not wearing the mask of a rich foreign prince, and hailed as a hero by the entire kingdom.
Fairytale endings like that don't really happen in real life, do they?
I suppose it all depends on what perspective you're looking at it from. If you're a fictional character talking out of a story that he considers to be reality, then you'd better start having faith in fairytales. Heck, Al convinced me to believe in friends and heroes. Combine the two, and you've got a tale that should almost certainly include fairies—I mean, end happily ever after.
And even if you're not a fictional character, but a flesh-and-blood reader who's had doubts about life, love, friendship, trust, forgiveness, and the freedom to fully realize those intangible wonders that a being greater than phenomenal cosmic jinnis has endowed upon us all, then maybe, just maybe you'd better start believing, too.