Even one wary of wishes can carefully craft a lisdt

January 06, 1998|By SUSAN REIMER

I HAVE HEARD so often the admonition "be careful what you wish for . . . " and it has now mixed so thoroughly with my own overactive sense of caution that I don't know if I could toss a penny in a fountain with much confidence.

If pressed, I might wish for the happiness of my children or the health of my husband, or patience and a peaceful heart for me.

These are the kinds of things a person prays for in church. These are safe, sensible wishes. Generic wishes. Low-risk wishes.

These are not the kinds of wishes characters make in fairy tales, where the wish takes control of the wisher and disaster follows despite their best, double-think wishing.

In her new book, a collection of five fairy stories called "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye," author A.S. Byatt answers the fatalism of us wishing-impaired grown-ups in the story from which the book takes its title.

"Once upon a time, when men and women hurtled through the air on metal wings . . . there lived a woman who was largely irrelevant, and therefore happy," begins the tale of our heroine.

She is not a captive maiden princess, but a dowdy, doughy, middle-aged woman whose children have left home and whose husband has done the same, sending her a fax from Majorca where he has fled with a 26-year-old beauty.

Gillian Perholt, like Byatt, is a British scholar and storyteller, a "narratologist" who decodes stories and fairy tales. She does not despair in her abandonment, but instead finds it freeing. "Like a bird confined in a box, like a gas confined in a bottle, that found an opening, and rushed out."

On a scholarly junket to Turkey, she buys an exotic bottle of blue glass -- called "nightingale's eye." While cleaning it in her hotel room, she frees the djinn inside and he offers her the standard three wishes.

But she is no fool. She knows a thousand ancient tales and she knows how dangerous it is to wish. She must be wise, but not too clever for her own good.

She cannot wish to have her wishes granted forever. "Three is three," the djinn tells her. And she cannot wish to live forever, "because it is your nature to be mortal," he says.

Gillian and the djinn duel with stories and tales as they negotiate her wishes -- and his. Her first wish is for her body "to be as it was when I last liked it." In an instant, she returns -- not to the body of her youth, which she feared like a sword she could not handle -- but to the body she inhabited as a wiser, more self-assured 35-year-old.

With her last two wishes, Gillian both binds the djinn to her and frees him, and the scent of sandalwood and myrrh that rose from the pages of this little book caused me to wish for my own wishes.

Like Gillian Perholt, I would wish for my body to be the way it was the last time I liked it. Any woman would wish for that comfortable, confident vessel, knowing how it would free her.

L As for the other two wishes, mine might come from this list.

I wish all the information and all the stories from the books and magazines piled next to my bed would leap into my mind while I slept.

DTC I wish people would stop putting empty containers back in the fridge.

I wish the best was yet to be.

I wish I always knew immediately where my car was parked.

I wish Sports Illustrated's Gary Smith would write the story of my life.

I wish I could go without pantyhose, the way Princess Diana did.

I wish my family was hungry for what I cooked.

I wish I didn't have to wait 20 more years for my children to like and appreciate me.

I wish the phone would not ring during dinner or after 8 p.m.

I wish there was more time between the hour the children go to sleep and the hour that I must.

I wish there was a cure for grief.

I wish I could find the clicker.

I wish all endings were happy endings.

Pub Date: 1/06/98

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