The story had got out about the fisherman and his wife, but the part everyone remembered was that there was a magical wish-granting fish residing somewhere in the lake near the rotting ruins of the hovel where the fisherman’s old arthritic bones were buried. People told the story of the palaces and the power the couple had wished for and received, and they even told the story of the greedy wife’s return to her old hovel when she wished for too much. They did not speak of the woman’s madness, the years spent throwing a hook into the water until she finally decided to swim in after the fish herself. They did not speak of her drowning, of her body washing up on shore as bloated as her desires and as wasted as her once-grand home.
Everyone thought that they could handle the power of wishes, and the fish now had trouble swimming around the hooks and nets littering the water. He was very old and very clever, but even he could not escape all the lures. He began to feel as trapped as his bottle-bound kin, the jinn. At least by the rules of their imprisonment, they were only allowed to grant three wishes. He had to grant as many as his captor wished until they threatened the balance of life.
Not every person who caught him was as bad as the fisherman’s wife, but some were worse. Most people just wanted riches and nice places to live and would settle for that. Others wanted a disease cured or a loved one healed, and the fish never minded those wishes. Others… others wanted people hurt, killed, or humiliated. They didn’t always wish for these outcomes directly, but the fish could see through their hearts and their desires and knew what the core of it was. He tried not to grant those wishes, but there were rules he had to follow and he could not always avoid harm.
Decades passed, then centuries. The wishes largely stayed the same, varying only on the specific points as technology advanced. There were always the poor and cold and sick. There were always the greedy and lonely and twisted. The fish could understand their wishes, whether or not he agreed with them, but there were oft-repeated wishes he could never quite grasp.
“I wish my voice could be heard.”
“I wish I was respected for what I can do, not what I look like.”
“I wish my life weren’t dictated by sheets of paper.”
“I wish I were treated as an equal.”
Year after year, wishes of this nature came by in droves, and the fish could do nothing for them. Some would get angry, others would change their wishes to the more mundane desire for riches or career advancements, but most would just sigh and drop him back in the lake, then come back day after day in hopes of catching him again.
These were not wishes anyone should go to a fish to solve.
As the years went by, the wishes for material goods began to slow and be replaced with more abstract desires.
“I wish I weren’t so burdened all the time.”
“I wish I could have the freedom to try a big adventure without jeopardizing my future.”
“I wish we didn’t need so much stuff just to get by.”
“I wish I had a simpler life.”
The rich and greedy stopped coming. The fish did not miss them at first, until he realized that they would not need to ask their wishes if the wishes had already been granted.
“I wish our opinions mattered anymore.”
“I wish I had more agency in my life.”
“I wish there was more privacy.”
“I wish I were treated as a person.”
The fish took to hiding all day and all night under a rock at the bottom of the lake, watching the hopeful hooks sink beneath the surface of the water in search of answers and quick solutions, fast fixes to problems too big to see where the roots stretched. Years passed in silence, and eventually the hooks stopped coming.
In their stead, the fish watched the skies light up with fire and tasted smoke and blood in the water. The lake was empty of life, all true creatures dying of run-off and suffocation in its waters without the protection of jinn blood.
One night, a new sort of light joined the bomb-flashes in the sky, drawing the fish from his hiding-rock. Floating candles bobbed their way to the center of the lake, just a few at first, but hundreds followed as the night wore on. In the flickering light of each, the fish could see a wish.
“Bring my son back alive.”
“Restore our crops, our cities.”
“Give us back our dignity.”
“Help them see us as people, just as they are.”
On and on the wishes came until the fish could take no more. To grant them all would upset the balance of life, and so he took the first recourse he had ever learned in his centuries of wish granting.
The next morning, the people of the world woke in their war-torn nations to a land of hovels. Gone were the riches, the palaces and corporations, the mansions and supermarkets. The people flocked to the lake and once again threw their nets and fishing lines, with the ones who lost the most desperately diving into the water to meet the same fate as the fisherman’s wife. The fish remained hidden until the lakes were cleared of entrapments.
When next he was caught, he did not say a word. The fisherman tossed him in with the rest of his catch and tossed the line back in, whistling. The fish flopped in the bottom of the boat, gasping with relief. He granted his last wish that night, feeding a small and hungry family in a dark and quiet home.