“Grandfather! Grandfather! You’ll never guess what just happened!”
The old man fixed his grandson with a world-weary gaze and cleared his throat once or twice. If he had had the strength to shift himself in his elaborate iron wheelchair, he would have.
“You were visited,” he said eventually, “by a spiritual being with a strong Scottish accent which took the form of a fairy-winged stoat. In exchange for a tribute of one hundred green copper pennies, it offered to grant you your heart’s keenest desire.”
The younger man bit his lip, momentarily taken aback.
“Um, no,” he said. “Deirdre and I have just learned that we’re expecting. You’re to be a great-grandfather, Grandfather!”
“Hem,” grunted the old man. “Well, my congratulations to you. Do you know when—”
“The thing with the stoat fairy,” the old man’s grandson continued, “was last week.”
“See! You see!” the old man crowed. “I was not so far off!”
“I was rather hoping,” said the young man, a bit crossly, “that you’d be more excited about the new addition to the family than about my little ‘fairy stoat’ issue.”
“It’s a matter of some concern to me,” said the old man. “So. What boon will you ask of the stoat fairy?”
“WHAT BOON,” roared the old man, “WILL YOU ASK OF THE STOAT FAIRY?”
“It’s private,” he said, snippily, after a moment. “I’ve always been of the strong belief that metaphysical contracts between willing men of legal age and small mustelid-shaped daemonic apparitions should be kept in strict confidence.”
“Hem, hem,” said the old man. “Very well.”
“I’m glad you approve,” Grandson said. “Now then. If you are quite—”
“But if you will indulge me for a moment,” interrupted the old man, “I’m going to share a story with you. It’s about a young man not far from your own age.”
“Grandfather, I’m not certain—”
“Now this young man, one day, he was visited by a fairy-winged stoat who bore to him the same promises as your little stoat-vision did. ‘Your heart’s keenest desire!’ promised the stoat. So this young man, he scrounged around for a time and gathered up the green copper pennies that the stoat had requested, and then stood before it, tribute in hand, and pondered what he would ask for if he could ask for anything in the world. He thought and thought and no matter what he tried, he kept coming back to the same idea.
“You see, the young man had a young wife, just like yours. And he was expecting his firstborn, just as you are. And both these things made the young man very happy. But there was still something of the child in this young man, and even as he looked with joy upon his new little family, a part of him mourned the carefree times of his youth, which seemed just about over.”
“I don’t quite—”
“Hookers, son. Hookers and booze. Also, cocaine. The young man wanted the best of both worlds, the world of responsible fatherhood and the world of his hard-partying hard-drinking youth. So he made a fateful request of the stoat fairy that day.
“‘I wish,’ said this young fool, ‘to live a life free of consequences!’
“‘So be it!’ said the stoat fairy. And it vanished in a puff of eldritch smoke.”
“That’s very nice, Grandfather,” said Grandson. “Listen, I’m on sort of a schedule here, and—”
“For years, things worked out just dandily!” the old man pressed on, heedless. “He could drop all the smack he wanted, score with the hottest of the hot, indulge his mad fantasy for whipped-cream orgies until he surfeited on the stuff!”
“But then, you see,” cried the old man, a hard and desperate shine coming to his eyes, “he began to realize that as a result of the amazingly poor wording of his wish, his life had come to lack all consequence! Both bad… and good! None of the young man’s projects ever bore fruit! Every change that visited his life came as a result of the actions of others and of blind happenstance! All the toil of his existence amounted to nothing at all! And the worst, the worst by far—”
“Grandfather!” shouted Grandson. “I really must be running along soon!”
“The worst by far,” said the old man, slumping in defeat, “was that no matter what he tried to say, no matter what wisdom he tried to impart to the world, he was utterly ignored.”
“Mm,” said Grandson.
The old man sighed. “So, go then. I’m keeping you from your appointments.”
“Actually,” Grandson said, “I need to ask something of you before I go.”
The old man raised his head. “You… you need something from me?” he said.
“Yes,” said Grandson. “You wouldn’t happen to have any green copper pennies, would you? I can only find the brown sort around my house, and I figured since you’re a really old guy, you must certainly have some nice crusty green ones lying about somewhere.”
“Oh,” said the old man, looking crestfallen again. “Yes, I think there are some—”
“Never mind,” said Grandson, beginning to rummage through the old man’s cupboards. “Think I found some in a jar here.” He held them up to the light and appraised them with a critical eye. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, there are some in here that will do nicely.” With a quick swish, Grandson secreted the jar somewhere in the lining of his longcoat.
“Those are mine,” protested the old man, to—predictably—no effect whatsoever.
“Now,” said Grandson, “I must be off. Congratulations again on becoming a great-grandfather!” And without waiting for a reply, the young man swept out.
There was silence for a time.
Then, in a puff of eldritch smoke, the spectral figure of a fairy-winged stoat appeared, hovering over the old man’s right shoulder.
“So do ye rrreap what ye sow!” said the apparition.
“Shut up, stoat fairy,” said the old man.
And thus, settling himself in his wheelchair with a heavy sigh, the old man prepared himself for yet another long, consequence-free afternoon.