Each night the old man took the lantern from the shelf, trimmed and lit the wick, adjusted the flame till it suited him, and set the light in the bay window which looked out over the ocean. He always set it in the same location, where the light might be seen far out over the water, miles and miles away. The boy, Asrai, watched this ritual in silence night after night, unchanging, unvarying. The old man never offered explanation, never acknowledged that there was anything unusual in what he did. The chore was simply part of the routine of everyday life, no different than the sun rising over the hills to the east or the sound of the surf washing up on the shore below.
“Why do you light the lantern and place it in the window, night after night, always the same?” Asrai asked one evening.
The old man looked startled. He stared at the boy a long moment, his expression grave. Finally he spoke, not angrily but with conviction. “It were better not to ask such a thing. Better to ignore it and leave it be.” An uncomfortable silence ensued. The old man went about the task of trimming the wick, his gestures careful and precise.
“Still, why do you do it?” Asrai repeated.
The old man set his pocket knife down. He walked over to the tinder box and retrieved a wooden match. “You are too young,” he said, his manner gruff. “You would not understand.”
“Perhaps that is so,” Asrai admitted. “All the same, I should like to know. I have been patient these many years, have said nothing and have implied nothing. I have waited for you to speak.”
The old man scratched the stubble beneath his jaw. He frowned. He stepped over to the window and stared out. “It is difficult to explain,” he said, his back to the boy. “If you were older…” He paused, again frowned. “A boy must acquire a sense of perspective before he can appreciate certain things. He lacks depth and insight. Someone your age, your judgment and instincts are not sound. You are too apt to accuse, too apt to condemn. You’re mature beyond your years, certainly. I don’t deny that. But still, only a boy.”
Asrai got up from the chair where he sat, walked to the window. A brilliant orange glow defined the far horizon. The sky above was streaked with crimson and purple and vivid scarlet. “I’m older than you think, or would like to think,” he said. “I shall understand what I understand. As for the rest . . . that will come to me in time.”
The old man stared at Asrai, his affection for the boy tempered by doubt and uncertainty. Finally he sighed, drew himself up with grim determination. “Out there, where the sun settles into the water and the color bleeds across the sky, do you see? That is where she came from. A creature of the djinn, a woman unlike any other – graceful and ethereal and exotic, eyes as dark and deep and full of mystery as the ocean itself. How was I to know her true nature or her true intent? How was I to see beyond the outward form and divine what lay within? How?!” The old man clutched the sill of the window.
“I am a simple man, prey to simple passions – as all men are. I saw what she wished me to see, sought no explanation beyond that which she offered. I was blind, willfully so, for it suited my purpose no less than it suited hers. She wished…” The old man paused, struggled to find words to express his thoughts. “She wished to bear a child of the race of men, to sample the lot of a woman of this earth. She wished to taste a man’s passion.” The old man shuddered, horror in his eyes. “But it was no more than an idle frolic on her part, a whim. She cared not for the child and not for the man. Cared for none but herself. She was as inconstant and fickle as the wind upon which she arrived.” The old man slumped forward, his face ashen, his eyes clouded and far away.
“I am that child, aren’t I?” Asrai said.
The old man turned, rested a hand upon Asrai’s shoulder. “Yes. By all that is good and holy and true and just, I swear that it is so. And, to such extent as I have wronged you, I solicit your forgiveness.”
Asrai reached up, clasped the old man’s hand. “And the lamp?” he asked.
“Why…” The old man stared out over the vast expanse of the sea at the last dying embers of light. “I want her back, of course. On any terms. On any condition. I want her so badly that the longing devours me, consumes me, drives me to the very brink of madness. And perhaps beyond. I am only a wisp of fog without her, nothing more. Only a shadow.”
The light settled beneath the horizon and was gone. Asrai stared into the dark, through the dark, and imagined that he saw a form far out upon the ocean, graceful, beautiful, light of foot, dancing over the surface of the water. She was as free and capricious as the wind, as unfeeling and as cruel.
Asrai lifted the glass globe of the lantern, snuffed out the wick between his fingers. With it, he banished all thought of her from his mind – as only a true child of the djinn might do.