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art by Steven R. Stewart

The Wishwriter's Wife

Ian McHugh is a graduate of Clarion West. His stories have won grand prize in the Writers of the Future contest and Australia's Aurealis Award. His stories have also appeared recently in Asimov's, Analog and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. His full bibliography and links to read or hear most of his prior publications free online can be found at ianmchugh.wordpress.com.

In the days when fairies were still to be found in the world, and wishes could come true, there lived a wishwriter and his wife. The wishwriter was a clever man, but plain, and born with a twisted back that made him stoop. His wife was beautiful, gentle and generous, and she loved him just as he was.
The wishwriter was happy, for this was just as he had wished. His wife contented herself that her husband, too, was gentle and generous, and it did not hurt her to love him.
The wishwriter made his living because no matter how many fairies came into a person's possession, they could only ever have one true wish. A wish could only be for a single thing; a person could not wish for fame and fortune, or a beautiful palace and a handsome prince. It could not be an infinite thing--eternal youth or a purse that was always full of gold--or even too large a thing, or the wish would not bind and take.
"It is important for the wish to bind," the wishwriter said, touching his wife's cheek, "otherwise it might fade, or simply vanish.
"And that," he said, "would be heartbreaking."
His wife showed him a smile, and wondered what it would be like to not be bound.
"And a wish cannot make more wishes," the wishwriter said, always pleased to show off his expertise. "So if a person has more than one heart's desire, and many do..." He spread his hands with a self-satisfied grin.
"...they will come to a wishwriter," his wife obliged.
It was the wife's role to greet her husband's clients, and to flatter and fuss over them while--usually--the houseboy ran to fetch the wishwriter from his club or the baths or the gaming house. Then, once he had snuck in the back door and up the servants' stairs, she would take the clients up to his study, where the wishwriter would now be ensconced behind his desk, his features shrouded beneath a scholar's hood.
"It all adds to the air of mystery," he told her, "which is very important in this line of work."
The wishwriter's wife was fascinated by the many heart's desires of the people who sought her husband's services. One day, she might open the door to find a woman clutching a breadbox, inside which was the fairy she had caught raiding her pantry. The woman would tell of her husband, who could no longer ply his trade as a woodcutter since an accident that cost him his arm, and she wished for him to be whole. Yet at the same time she herself was barren and longed for a daughter. Then the wishwriter would send her away for a week, and when she returned he would give her a tiny scroll on which was written: "I wish, I wish, I wish to find at home my delighted husband holding aloft our infant daughter with his two strong arms." The woman would speak the wish, and the fairy would give up its magic and its bright tiny life to make the wish come true.
Or the wife might discover a young boy waiting on the step, who in desperation had traded his father's precious violin to a fairy trapper. The boy's father had been a great composer, but was now deaf, and the boy wished for him to be able to hear and make music again. At the same time, the boy felt himself a disappointment to his father, for he had not inherited his gift for music and, what was more, his father would certainly be furious when he discovered the loss of his violin. After a week, at the appointed time, the boy would return and read aloud his wish, which said: "I wish, I wish, I wish for my father to hear me playing skillfully on the new violin that is the equal of the one I traded." Then the fairy in its little brass cage would turn to sparkling dust, the dust would become his wish, and the boy would race joyfully home clutching his new violin.
The wishwriter always sent people away for a week, although it rarely took him as long as an hour to piece together their various desires into a single wish.
"Most people could write their own wishes," he confided to his wife, "if only they thought a little."
But of course most people did not, and so the wishwriter would send them away for a week. For although he was gentle and generous he was also clever, and knew on which side his bread was buttered.
He did always strive to write their wishes as well as possible. "But in truth," he said to his wife, "the precision of the words does not matter so much. Wishes are not fickle things, as long as a person does not get too greedy, and provided the wish is expressed in a single clause."
So the wishwriter and his wife lived comfortably and even grew quite wealthy, for he wrote wishes for rich as well as poor. If his customers had no gold or silver, he would take payment in goods or kind--a winter's supply of chopped firewood, or a gift of music lessons for his wife. Sometimes, during the breeding season, a lucky person would come with two captured fairies and offer the second to the wishwriter as payment.
Whenever this happened the wishwriter would smile and gesture to his wife and say: "I have but a single wish, and it is already true." But he would take the fairy, for fairies were as good as money, especially to a wishwriter.
His wife would stare at the tiny being in its cage. She, too, had come to have a single wish.
For as the wishwriter had grown older, his cleverness had become arrogance and conceit. He had also grown fat, as a result of enjoying his comfortable life. He had developed jowls and a substantial paunch. His muscles had become slack and his skin blotchy. His stoop had turned into a hunch. But he did not care for any of these things, for his wife remained beautiful, even as she aged, and he knew she must love him just as he was. He did not consider that his wife might be troubled.
Although, of course, she had no choice but to love him, still she longed for him to be more like he once had been, and not as he had become. And in her secret heart, she longed not to be bound at all. But as her husband had told her, a wish could not make more wishes, and so the heart's desire that grew within her remained inside and unsaid.
And as the wishwriter grew older, he also developed a sickness of the mind. Subtly at first, then more and more noticeably his moods became erratic. He grew prone to fits of passion and anger, wild tantrums that boiled up from nowhere. He was no longer gentle and generous. His gift for writing wishes deserted him, and people began to take their business elsewhere.
Because his sickness was of the mind, the wishwriter could not see it for himself, and blamed others for their fickleness. His wife tried to bring him healers, but he drove them away with insults and curses, and accused his wife of betrayal and trying to do him harm. She bore his unkind words in silence, for she knew his mind was no longer his own, and she continued to care for him as best as he would allow. But, although she could not help but still love him, she also began an affair with a younger man from the town, who was gentle and generous as her husband once had been.
The last healer that she tried, an alchemist of some note, accepted her apologetic offer of tea, after he too had been driven rudely from her husband's bedside. He watched her pour with shaking hands, then sipped from his cup and offered words of small comfort: "It is unlikely that medicine could have helped him, anyway. Such is often the case with diseases of the mind."
They sat in her husband's study, a room of strong sunlight and deep shadows that reminded her of the wishwriter as he once had been. From a hook by the window hung a fairy in a brass cage, the last of those with which her husband had been paid when he was still well enough to work.
The alchemist gestured to it. "A wish might save him."
The wife looked longingly at the fairy and her eyes filled with tears. She shook her head.
"Ah, of course. You have had your one true wish already," he guessed.
She whispered, "No."
A small frown creased the alchemist's brow. "A cure for your husband is not among your heart's desires?"
No, the wife answered, in the deepest part of her heart. She drew an unsteady breath and looked at the alchemist directly. "A wish cannot make more wishes," she told him.
He stared at her. A look of comprehension crossed his features, and with it a touch of compassion. He reached out, his fingertips making fleeting contact with the back of her hand.
"It will be done soon," the alchemist said. "He will not last much longer."
She smiled at him through her tears, and gave him the fairy for payment, though it was worth far more than his fee. Even in those days, they were becoming rare.
The wishwriter's health continued to decline. His wild moods diminished and he became increasingly idle and withdrawn. His wife continued to care for him as he lost the ability to meet even his own most basic needs. Still she loved him just as he was--she could do nothing else--and she reminded herself that he had always been gentle and generous to her before his sickness, and he had given her a good life. And, whenever she could, she found comfort in the arms of her townsman, whom she could not love, but who she fancied she might, had she the choice.
Eventually the day came when the wishwriter could not even rise from his bed, and his wife knew that his time must be near. She wrote a letter to her young townsman, bidding him farewell and telling him she believed she would have loved him, had the choice been hers. She gave it to a street urchin to deliver, for she had let the servants go, months before.
Then she sat by her husband's side and waited for Death to come and claim him. As the wishwriter breathed his last breaths, his face eased and his wife thought she glimpsed something of the man he once had been. She grieved for that man, and grieved that he had been gone from her for so long. And she grieved that he had bound her to him, had not given her a free heart when he wished her into being and set himself the task of earning her love.
Quietly, without fuss, Death stole into the room, and the wishwriter breathed no more.
His wife felt relief then, even as she wept, that at last his madness and her misery were at an end.
Her tears did not last long. A calm settled over her. She looked inside herself and found her heart free and unbound. She breathed in, deeply. Then out. Motes of sparkling dust rode on her breath, only a few at first, thickening to a cloud as the long sigh went on. As the cloud grew brighter and more dense, so she dimmed and faded.
When only the cloud remained, it swirled about the room until it found the open window. Out it went, riding the breeze. The motes scattering, unfettered at last, and quickly to fade.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

Author Comments

"The Wishwriter's Wife" was written in my head at a 10-day Vipassanna silent meditation retreat in the Blue Mountains east of Sydney, and decanted into my notebook in furtive ten-minute bursts while locked in the loo (since you're not allowed to write at vippy, either). I also wrote "Interloper", which appeared in the January 2011 issue of Asimov's, in my head at the same retreat - hence my need to get at least one of them out of my head before the end of the retreat. My story "Annicca", inspired by my first time at vippy, appeared in Greatest Uncommon Denominator #6 and recently got an HM from Ellen Datlow for Best Horror of the Year #3. So, while writing fiction isn't at all the intended outcome of a silent meditation retreat, I can't recommend it highly enough for that purpose.

- Ian McHugh
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