Land oughta be green, Joseph thought.
It wasn’t. No matter which way he looked across the flat plains all he saw was brown, dead dirt. Just brown, far as the eye could see.
I’m like an ant on a massive oak table. Now Joseph, that sounds like somethin’ they’d read out of a book by the fire way back when. At least when I can’t fill Mary’s stomach with nothin’ I can fill her head with worthless little bits of philosophohfizin’.
He’d long given up on the fields or selling anything in town — the ground was too dead and barren to even hope. But Joseph had found a patch of ground less abused than the rest and had planted a small garden; it was something, maybe enough to get through the winter what with the hard tack and preserves they had saved. Or at least something to eat on the road when they left.
Humming tunelessly, he thrust the hoe again into the ground, turning up soil that looked almost dark, almost wet, almost like life hadn’t quite given up here yet.
Up and down went the hoe, sinking its teeth into the softer soil. Until… clank.
Startled from the meditative state his repetitive work had brought on, Joseph reached down and saw a corner of dark, burnished metal. Pushing dirt away with his hands, he quickly enough found himself holding a small canister, no more than a foot around, made of heavy, rough lead and weighing more than it had any right to.
That’s right odd.
Usually folks bury things for a reason. Sometimes to forget ’em, sometimes to keep ’em.
Let’s hope thisun was buried for keepin’.
Joseph pried against the seal, trying to get a purchase when, with a sudden crack, the lid gave way. Jumping back, he watched as the canister hit the ground. It was silent all around and for a moment it looked as if the thing was empty.
Then dark blue smoke began to curl, then pour, from the opening of the canister. Joseph just stood, dumbstruck.
The smoke, at first seeming to billow outwards without form, cleared as quickly as it came and left a translucent human form, no less than some eight feet tall, looming over the staring man.
“Four hundred years!” cried the spirit.
And it talks too… Lord in Heaven, judge me kindly.
“Four. Hundred. Years.” it spat, ephemeral flames licking up its legs with each word. “Trapped all that time.”
“Well, you’re out now,” Joseph said.
Idiot. Damned fool, you always had too quick a tongue.
“Anything else you wish to say before I kill you, blathering fool?”
Its eyes bored into him.
“Hold on now, hold on — kill me? Me? What’d I ever do to you? I just let you out!”
“I will grant you the choice of the manner of your death. Speak!”
Fumbling, delaying, and still unbelieving, Joseph did, indeed, speak:
“Now, uh, mister — sir — uh, well, I don’t quite understand, you see? Who — what — who are you? And, uh, how’d you find yourself in that ugly old milkcan in the first place? Now I know…”
“He put me there. Oh, how I would rend him limb from limb. King of my kind, tyrant of us all — I had him! But, betrayed in the final moment, I was taken, punished, and confined to that awful vessel. For a hundred years I raged. For another hundred I swore any wish and any boon to him that would rescue me. For another hundred I swore myself in eternal servitude to my eventual rescuer. For another hundred, rotting in my prison, I swore death on him that had waited so long to find me. You.“
“What, me? I didn’t wait, I don’t even —”
Now hold on.
“How’d you even fit in that there thing anyway?”
“I don’t believe that… what a load of hogwash. Ain’t no way all of you fit in that tiny little thing there for four hundred years.”
Joseph let out a forced laugh.
Indignant, the spirit spiraled down into the vessel, crying out:
“Fool! My forms are endless, there is no limit to my abilities.”
The last of these words were muffled as Joseph slapped the cover of the canister back on and quickly closed the latches. A muffled screaming could be heard from inside, slowly growing fainter…
Dusk came and found Joseph sitting on the ground, hoe in hand, slowly regaining his calm. Eventually a small smile crept over his face.
You clever bastard, you. Just wait till Mary hears this!
Author’s Note: I thought I’d transpose the story of the poor fisherman and the genie out into the dustbowl. I don’t quite know how or why I thought of that, but here it is. I don’t know if there’s anything in Native American folklore analogous to a genie, which is why I just called it a spirit and left it at that.
(And yes, the spelling of “philosophohfizin‘” is intentional, sound it out.)
Story Source: “The Story of the Fisherman” from Arabian Nights, sourced from the course UnTextbook.
Image Source: University of Illinois Department of English, “A Photo Essay on the Great Depression.”