by Bonnie Douglas
Below is a story we did, originally for the #2022 Short Story Challenge, but 2022 is over and we’re still writing. This is an Appalachian-inspired take on the “genie in a bottle.” We hope you enjoy it.
Granny Steinbrecher had been in these mountains a long time. She had traveled into this territory as a young girl, walking behind her father’s packhorse. She was married by thirteen and had dug, planted, harvested, cooked, and bore three children all in these hills. When her man died, she was 30, and when her daughter Aggie made her a granny, she was 33. Now at 50, she could barely count her grandchildren.
But the oldest grandson was gone now. Sniffling, she said his name, “Jesse.”
The sniffling turned to sobs, and she leaned against a door frame, weeping. When she finally dried her eyes, the devastation had turned to anger. At the age of 16, Jesse had begun running with a group of older boys, and their wild ways had gotten him killed at 17. The drinking and gambling had led to thievery, and Jesse was shot when their gang tried to rob a store. Now he was gone forever and her anger was burning at the boys he ran with.
Granny knew these mountains very well and was versed in the mountain way, including the darker things that were never discussed in the open. She was one of the original “witchy women” of the countryside. How she ended up with her late husband she would never tell. They couldn’t have been more different. Her husband was a giant. Granny, was small, almost tiny, with long red hair she kept in a bun unless she was working, and a narrow vulpine face. She knew vulpine is a fancy word for foxy, which meant sly back then, and not pretty.
“I wish you were here, Hans,” she whispered.
Her husband had been a mason. With a name like Steinbrecher, you could hardly be anything else. He wasn’t one of those “secret handshake, wink and a nod” masons. He was the real thing. He was a true master of stonework who could bend and shape stone like no one else she’d ever seen. She felt as if she was made of stone right now, especially her heart. Turning back to her revenge, her face grew slyer than ever as she plotted. Jesse was gone, and these boys who led him astray would pay. She would start with the leader, Jasper Turcott.
Jasper Turcott was weary. He had been living on the run since he and his friends had tried to rob a store in a nearby town. Some of the others were in jail, but one had died. Jasper was laying low, sleeping under the stars and planning his escape from this mountain town. He was sorry for the loss of Jesse. Jesse knew the land better than he did, and Jasper would have been much more comfortable with him along. He was sad that Jesse had died, but he had to find a way to get out of here and travel to a city where he could start again.
“Dammit!” He cursed again at the foiled robbery. When that store owner pulled out that gun, he’d had to leave before he could get any money. Now he had to find a way to survive and get out of town. The thirst for liquor that had fueled his plan in the first place was also stronger than ever.
“Jasper!” He heard a woman call his name, and stiffened in fear. Who was this? He peered through the trees and saw a tiny, red-headed elderly woman dressed in black. She was carrying a covered basket and a jug.
“Come on out here!” She called, setting her things on a flat rock. “I have some food for you and something to drink.”
Squinting, Jasper realized he knew this woman. It was Jesse’s Granny, Emma Steinbrecher. “Why would she help him?” Was it a trap? He stayed silent, shrinking back further against the trees.
Granny waited a while, and then sighed. “I know you are scared, but you need to eat. There is nobody here but me. I’ll leave these things and go.”
Jasper watched her walk away into the forest, and waited at least a half hour before he came out. A covered basket greeted him, and inside—fried chicken! He tore into a drumstick greedily. There was apple pie, and a huge piece of cornbread. He picked the jug up to drink, and was surprised to discover it contained moonshine. The food forgotten, he drank his fill. Two hours later, after he had drifted off to sleep, he was awoken by a singsong voice.
Confused, he sat up and saw that Granny was back. She sat on another rock, facing him.
“Hello, Jasper,” she said.
He leaped up and looked around warily for the police.
“There’s nobody here but me.” Granny smiled and stood, approaching him with outstretched hands. “I came here to feed you, not turn you in.”
“Why would you do that?”
She smiled and clasped her hands together, almost in prayer. “My grandson would want me to. Now tell me how I can help you.”
Jasper laughed, a dark look in his eyes. “Unless you can get me out of town, you can’t help.”
“Is that your deepest wish? To leave here?”
He threw up his hands in the air and snorted. “What do you think? I wish I could get out of here right now.”
Suddenly everything changed. Was he in a cave? It was dark and wet, and the space seemed enclosed. Walls were close around him and Granny was gone. The smell of moonshine was everywhere. Was he dead? Was this hell? He cried out in fear.
“Don’t worry, Jasper. You’re still alive.” Granny’s voice seemed to echo from far away. “You are inside that jug with the liquor you love so much.”
In a low and lilted cadence, she began to sing, and the words echoed through his prison.
In this vessel you will live
But many wishes it shall give
Make a wish and they will pay
With a stay of three full days
And those wishes will come true
With the penance paid by you
But to this jug you will be tied
And will live until you die.
“You will stay here, Jasper, until someone else holds this jug and makes a wish. Then you will be released for three days while they take your place.” Her voice now showed the anger she had been hiding. “What you do with those three days is up to you. Upon the release of your temporary rescuer, their wish will be granted and you will return to the jug. This jug does not break easily, because it’s made with a special stone, so don’t think you can end things that way.”
Jasper felt as if he were being lifted into the air. “I’ll leave this where the right person can find it,” Granny said, and he could feel her walking along, carrying him with her on her way to more vengeance.
Granny told me when she cursed me that I would live until I died. Well, let me tell you that has turned out to be a lot more difficult than I ever thought it would! I lived a lot longer than I had a right to, but so far I haven’t figured out a way to accomplish the dying part. She cursed me good, that’s for sure.
Have you ever said something like, “This meal is so good I could eat it every day?” Well believe me, no matter how much you like fried chicken, cornbread, apple pie and moonshine, after a few months of nothing else you’ll be begging for a change.
Granny Steinbrecher truly knew what she was doing when she stuck me inside this jug. I wanted for nothing. I had a picnic basket that replenished itself no matter how much I ate, and a jug of ‘shine’ that never ran out. While there were no luxuries, I had a table, chair, and a tick mattress full of clean straw and blanket to sleep under when I could finally close my eyes. I had a Bible to read, along with tablets and pencils to write with. I had tried every wily trick I could come up with to escape the curse she laid on me. No matter what I tried, did, or said, I always ended up back in the jug at the end of the three days.
It used to be a lot easier to get folks–usually ne’er-do-wells similar to myself–to pick up a jug full of things unknown. Even a muttered “wish” for something simple like another drink or a decent pair of socks was enough to buy me three days of freedom. At first I tried to get back to the holler and talk to Granny, but travel was a lot harder back then. My jug and I had traveled a lot further than I thought possible the first time I was released.
Stealing a horse was risky, but not impossible, and after an unfortunate soul made a wish and landed in my jug, that was the first thing I did. I rode hell-bent for leather with the jug bouncing crazily behind me, arriving just before sundown on the third day.
Skidding my stolen horse to a halt in the dirt in front of Granny’s stone house I hollered “Granny Steinbrecher! Please! It’s me, Jasper Turcott! I’ve come to tell you how sorry I am about Jesse!” I stumbled towards the house with the jug in my hands and I saw the door creak open. Granny Steinbrecher stalked into the yard as the last rays of sun tucked themselves behind the hills and with a twitch of her fingers, the jug tore itself from my hands into hers.
“Now Jasper, it’s barely been three months since you went to your new home. I hardly think you’ve even begun to feel the sorrow I feel at the loss of my grandson.” With another twitch of her fingers, I saw a flash of light and felt a tremendous tug. With a flinch, I closed my eyes and threw my hands in front of my face to protect it from whatever was coming my way.
Opening my eyes, I found myself back in the confines of the jug, surrounded by the objects I was slowly coming to loathe.
I could hear Granny’s voice from outside the jug, echoing her words of comfort to the poor drunken soul who’d just been sucked out when I was pulled back in.
Furious, I hurled everything that was in reach around the confines of my prison. With a shout at the top of my lungs I hollered “GRANNY!”
I could hear her cackle as she soothed the stranger. “Now, don’t you worry none. We’ll get you fixed up and headed back where you belong in the morning.”
With a clatter, she sat the jug down and I could tell she was talking to me when she continued, “A lot can happen in three days, especially when you’re drunk. We’ll just have to make sure that you don’t end up in worse trouble than you’re already in.”
Before long she picked up my jug and carried me away, back into the forest. I assumed she left me where I could be found, because strangers occasionally found me and gave me a three-day reprieve.
As time went by I made it back to Granny Steinbrecher three more times. Travel had gotten easier but changing her mind proved impossible. I was trapped in this jug for as long as I lived and so far I had not aged a day since Granny had sent me to my just desserts.
The last time I made it back to the holler with plenty of daylight left. I had no idea how long it had been. This time I managed a ride in something called an “automobile” most of the way. As I strode up the overgrown trail towards Granny’s house I could feel the difference in the holler.
Climbing the rocky trail and rounding the last curve of rough path into the small cove in the mountains, my heart fell. “No,” I said, feeling the last dregs of hope leave me.
No one had been here in quite a while. I worried that Granny might have passed on but since my curse continued I had hopes that she lingered as well Not a wisp of smoke from a fire, and the well-tended gardens had fallen fallow long ago. Stones from the house lay scattered in the overgrown grasses filling the clearing. Only a lonely mound of stone marked by a simple cross met my searching eyes.
“Dammit,” I muttered, as I set my clay prison down on the grass surrounding the grave and knelt down. “Well Granny, I suppose you had the last laugh. I’ll never be free no matter how hard I try.”
Searching the ground, I found a small pebble and chucked it at the marker. With a soft crack of stone meeting stone, it bounced off. I heard a slight “tink” as the rock met an object hidden in the tall grass.
With a sigh, I went to see what I had hit.
Running my hands through the grass I found a familiar clay jug. Grasping it with both hands I tugged it from the tangle of grass and looked it over carefully. Pretty much all clay jugs look the same and this was no exception. The only difference between this jug and my prison were the letters “J.T.” scrawled in black paint on the outside. It even had a corn cob stopper like mine.
Pulling the cob out, I leaned in to look inside the jug. Before I could even draw the breath for a shout, I felt a familiar tug and found myself sprawled on a floor in front of a cozy fireplace. I heard a creaking and turned to find myself facing an even more aged version of Granny Steinbrecher, sitting in a carved wooden rocking chair with a bundle of knitting in her lap. Her vibrant hair was almost completely gray.
“Hello, Jasper,” she said, fixing her green eyes on me firmly.
“Is that you in the grave?” I asked, my voice hoarse with fear.
She nodded. “I am gone from this world. This is a simple message for you. There is a way to destroy the jug, but you will have to find it on your own.”
I began to sob and got down to my knees, ready to beg.
“No need for that,” she said softly. “I am only a shadow, a message. I can’t destroy the jug for you. My soul is in Heaven, and I’m sure I am sorry for the vengeance I wreaked on you.”
I knelt there on the stone floor, crying until my tears were gone. When I looked up, Granny had faded away, and soon I was released from Granny’s jug.
I screamed up at the sky, knowing I would soon be returned to the place I had left my jug. I had stopped carrying it with me because I would be returned to it from wherever I was within three days.
And before long I was back on the straw tick mattress, with the chicken dinner waiting. As usual, the evidence of the previous occupant was gone. I had tried for many years to scream out at whoever had been released to help me, but they never seemed to hear me. I couldn’t hear them either. The only person who I ever had been able to hear inside the jug had been Granny. I had no way to communicate, so I was surprised when a piece of paper dropped into the jug.
“What is this thing?” were the only words written on the paper.
Having nothing else to do, I wrote, “my prison,” and was glad that I had learned to read and write before I went astray so many years ago. I added “My name is Jasper,” and then realized I had no way to send it back up. Suddenly a string dropped down into the jug. I folded the note up, tied it with the string, and watched it get pulled back up. This was how I met Jack. I slowly, through a lot of notes, explained my situation. Afterwards, I was surprised by the response.
“I would love to go back in.”
My next note was written in a surprised, angry slash. “WHY!”
His response left me silent. “I haven’t had a place to sleep and steady meals in a long, long time.”
I had never thought of it that way. Although it was always the same meal, when I was in that jug I was fed and dry. I felt ashamed.
After a bit of silence on my part, another note came down from Jack.
“I will make another wish. I will wish to come back to the jug. That will give you three days.”
I had never had anyone willing to make their wish more than once. Usually, they ran away, convinced they were drunk or going crazy. By the time their wish was granted, I assumed they could never find the jug again. During my temporary releases, I had tried to get people to help me over the years, but was never able to get anyone to believe me in three short days. Often I found myself beaten up. Once I was jailed, but that didn’t keep me from the jug two days later.
“You can wish for whatever you want,” I replied. That will put you back in the jug for three days. What did you wish for last time?”
“A warm place to lay my head.”
I explained to him his wishes could be grander, but was soon sucked back out of the jug. Instead of walking away, I began to drop notes, and found out his full name was Jack Anderson. He was 54 years old, which means he could have been one of my great-great grandsons, although I still looked 22. He told me he was having pizza. I had learned about pizza in my time outside the jug.
“No chicken for you!” I wrote excitedly. At that moment, I realized I’d never been happy for anyone else before.
And our friendship began, with both of us exchanging places in the jug and dropping notes back and forth.
Eventually, Jack wished for some money to live on. It came slowly, but a time arrived when my jug rested on a low shelf in Jack’s house, the “warm place to lay his head” that he had wished for. We continued our written conversations. When I told him about Jesse and Granny, he was surprised, especially when he learned this all happened in 1882. He began to research, trying to find the way to end Granny’s curse once and for all.
Jack continued to make wishes for a long time, giving me free time outside the jug. I had my own room in Jack’s house, so I no longer had to find a home for three days or sleep in the woods as I had for so many years. Jack would always leave me a letter in my room before he made a wish. It was always filled with encouragement and a request to look on the brighter side.
“You have a home now,” he would remind me. “You have a friend.”
“My one regret,” I often wrote to him, “Is that we can’t talk face to face.”
“I have wished for that many times,” wrote Jack. “But that one has not been granted.”
We continued to research, but to no avail. Then the day came that I had dreaded. Jack was now 64, and began to write that he was feeling frail. When he told me his kidneys were failing, I was terrified. I knew medicine was much more advanced, but he had to explain to me about dialysis and transplant lists. Jack, like myself, had no relatives. He had to wait for a miracle.
“Wish for a kidney!” I demanded.
“If I try that, I will have to go in the jug.” he would respond in a shaky hand. “I’m not sure I’m up for that right now.”
“You’re right,” I would say in a return note, “It will be tough, but we have to try.” So after six months of my living in the jug without a break and four days away from Jack’s dialysis, I was released when he wished for a kidney.
I immediately began writing him to see how he felt and kept dropping notes into the jug. “No change,” he replied. “I’m so weak I can’t stay awake.”
After it appeared Jack had fallen asleep, I knelt by the jug. I had wished in front of it many times over many years during short releases, begging for the curse to be ended, but to no avail. This time my wish was for Jack. “Whoever can hear me, whether it’s Granny or God, or whoever can control this jug, take my life right now. Take my life in exchange for Jack’s!”
There was a calmness over me as I said the words, but nothing seemed to happen again. I left the room, filled with anguish as I sobbed for my friend. When my tears dried, I looked up into Granny’s face. She was younger, with bright red hair and green eyes. Jesse, who I had so wronged, was standing next to her, looking the same as I remembered. His eyes were kind.
“I’m sorry, Jasper, Granny said. “I’m sorry for my anger and my curse. I shouldn’t have done it. But you have broken the curse. I set the curse so that it could only be broken when you loved someone as much as I love Jesse. That has happened. You are free.
Suddenly Jack was standing beside me. His face was grey and his hair was whiter than the pictures I had seen of him.
“Jasper!” He croaked. “Is that you?” I nodded, and embraced him while the tears ran down my face. When we turned around, Granny and Jesse were gone. All that remained was a jug, split in two.
My request to exchange my life for Jack’s appeared to have been ignored. I continued to live, and made an appointment to be tested so that I could give Jack a kidney. Before that happened, he got the call. A match had been found. The operation was a whirlwind. I was by his side, for Jack had listed me as his son and heir.
After the operation, life went on. Jack and I enjoyed sharing the home and living as father and son. Eventually, I began to see signs of my own aging, which brought me great joy. I am living like never before. I found a job and a girlfriend. And of course Jack and I kept writing together. We are actually working on a novel. It’s about a friendship and a magic jug.
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