Spirit In A Bottle (4500 words)

I’d like to tell you that I found the bottle at an obscure marketplace in Mumbai amongst colorful silk scarves and incense holders. Fact is I found it in a second hand shop just up the street from where I live. It was standing on an ugly coffee table beside an old Coke bottle, a small fridge for storing cans and a Betty Boop statue that sang “Dream A Little Dream Of Me”.

I walk past the shop every day on my way to work, and though I can admit that I had never been in there, I can also testify that I didn’t find it especially mysterious. It was a junk store and most of the stuff in there wasn’t worth more than whatever you might keep in your wallet each day, which usually isn’t much. It wasn’t a place where you expected to accidentally find priceless antiques, that’s for sure.

The reason I went in there was that I saw someone on the street I didn’t want to talk to. An aunt that would surely pinch my cheek, despite the fact that I’m a woman that’s past my best before date, and then she would proceed to ask me if there were wedding bells clinging, or if there was any chance of hearing the titter-tatter of tiny feet in the future. I wasn’t in the mood for that, to be honest there isn’t a person on the planet that has ever been in the mood for that line of questioning, especially not after they’ve turned 40. So I went into the store and I browsed.

There were things everywhere. Old furniture no-one would ever want, small statues and shelves filled with dusty books, vases and porcelain tea cans. There were plants in strange concrete pots, some small but some very large. Several ottomans stood in a corner, one looked like an ottoman I used to sit on as a kid at my grandmother’s house while watching Tom & Jerry. My gran always put me there when she thought I was being impossible, which was often. She used to shake her head and call me a tom boy because I refused to wear the dresses she insisted on buying me. I hated them. She did bake the best cinnamon rolls in the world though so I usually forgave her for trying to make me “lady like”. In her defense she had no idea what a lost cause that was.

In the store there was a large writing desk in one corner, it was heavy and filled with books, paper and pens. The chair beside it was large and the store owner, I assumed, turned to look at me as I walked in.

“Just browsing,” I told her. It was an elderly woman, with white wavy hair and a stern look.
“Just let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,” she said coldly and returned to her job at the desk. She was writing something down with a strange looking pen, her hand moving quickly over the pages. I watched her for a little while, she wrote calligraphy with vigor I had never seen in someone her age. When she stopped to stare at me I turned my face towards the window trying to see if my aunt was gone. I saw nothing though, the windows where covered with heavy, very dusty curtains. They didn’t let in any light so the shop was a bit dreary. I tried to recall what the window display looked like but only remembered a few books, an old typewriter and some magazines sitting on top of a red velvet fabric. The door, however, had a large window and that let in a little light. I peeked out but immediately noticed my aunt slowly walking on the opposite side of the road so I ricocheted back quickly and bumped into the small table the bottle was standing on.

At first I thought it would tip over, but the bottles just swayed as balance restored itself and all was well. The lady gave me the evil eye, and I apologized profusely, smiling while promising to be more careful.

The bottle was tall and thin, hourglass shaped, had a round golden tap, a mild turquoise color and golden lines running horizontally towards the tap. There was a golden seal on the side of the bottle, it was the head of a lion. Underneath the seal were the words DREAMS COME TRUE. Nothing else.

I picked it up and found that there was liquid inside. I turned it in my hands, before I put it down again. I looked at the Betty Boop statue, wound her up a bit and heard the raspy slow song.

“How much are these two?” I asked the woman.
She gave me a sum I found a bit steep and looked at me questioningly waiting to see if I would buy or not.

I decided not to and I excited the shop empty handed, walked to work and spent my day selling socks and shirts to desperate parents, and putting clothes back after the toddlers had been allowed to reek havoc.
I didn’t mind, it was something to do.

What I didn’t expect was that I couldn’t stop thinking about that bottle. I’m a Leo and so I’m drawn to things with pictures of lions. I like reading my horoscope, not because I believe in it really, it rarely seems in rhythm to my life, but I like the idea behind it. I like to think that someone can tell me just what is about to happen in my life. There’s a sense of hope in it. Will something extraordinary happen next week? It’s the drug of the melancholic. And somehow the lion on the bottle seemed to suggest that it was for me.

I found myself anxious, thinking: what if the bottle has been sold? What if I can’t get my hands on it? I usually enjoy working but now I suddenly found myself anxiously waiting for the clock to tick so I could go back and buy that bottle, no matter the prize.

It was a slow day so I closed early and hurried back. I was surprised to find my heart thumping heavily in my chest as I hurried down the street and towards the thrift shop. It was already dark, the lights glistening alarmingly in the puddles on the street. I almost ran down the street, hoping it would still be open.

It’s hard to even describe the disappointment I felt as I pushed the door handle down and found that it was closed. It would open at 9 the next morning. I tried to glance in the door window to see if the bottle was still there, but it was too dark to see.

It was with a heavy heart that I went home, put the meal in the microwave and watched Priscilla The Queen Of The Desert, not for the first time, while consuming more glasses of wine than is proper for a normal weekday. In fact I drank more than I would even allow myself during the holidays.

When morning came I was severely hungover, but longing for that bottle more than anything. So despite my ailments I showered and got dressed for work. The woman I worked for was away, and though I knew I could always call Betty and ask her to work if I wasn’t feeling very well, I just couldn’t do it.

I had never called in sick and I wanted that bottle, so I had to go out of the house anyway. With a throbbing head and heart I went back to the store. My hands were trembling as I pushed the shops door handle down.

I saw the bottle as soon as I stepped in. It was standing were it had stood the day before beside the Betty Boop Statue. I grabbed the bottle and the statue and went up to the lady who was sitting in her chair, watching me over a pair of small silvery glasses. I placed the two items on her desk and told her I wanted to buy them.

She stood up, pushed the glasses back on her nose and glared at the bottle, pushed some numbers in a small calculator she had on her desk and proceeded to tell me what the two items costed. It seemed peculiar as she had quickly given me that number the day before, but perhaps she felt it was important to put on a show. Then she proceeded to pack the items carefully in a brown box, she put the box in a large plastic bag and handed it to me. I gave her cash, it was more cash than I’d had in my wallet for a long time but I had taken it with me from home, not knowing if the shop dealt with modern plastic cards and I surely didn’t want to take any risk this time.

I walked out of the shop feeling so much better. It was as if the hangovers were slowly subsiding, my head didn’t throb as much and the shakes I had felt before were almost gone. When I came to work, to open up, I was as near to fine as I could possibly be considering the amount of alcohol I had consumed the night before.

It was a busy day, but I kept going back to the employee room to make sure my bag was untouched, not because I thought anyone would go in there and grab it but it still felt essential to make sure.

When it was time to close I did so quickly, did all my after hours chores and then I hurried home. I knew I should go to the grocery store and buy a few things for dinner, but I didn’t. I went straight home and unwrapped the things I had bought.

The bottle was even more exquisite than I remembered. I put it on the sofa table and sat down to watch the light reflecting in the bottle. I put Betty Boop on a side table and wound her up fully. The melody was slow and taunting at the same time. When she finished singing I turned my attention towards the bottle. Elegantly it seemed to emanate a slight glow on its own and the word “DREAMS COME TRUE” seemed to protrude somewhat.
I didn’t know if to just place the bottle on the shelf amongst my favorite things, or if I should dare to open it and at least get a whiff of its content. Drinking things from strange bottles you buy at thrift stores is a genuinely bad idea, but still I couldn’t help myself. I unscrewed the tab, which was easy, and I put the bottle to my nose.
It smelled of birch trees.

Can you imagine dreams smelling of birch trees after the rain? It’s a wonderful smell and I couldn’t get enough of it. I wasn’t convinced that something that smelled like birch trees would taste good however, but again I couldn’t help myself. I fetched an old, crystal schnapps glass I had inherited from my grandmother – a glass I had never used – and I poured myself a little mouthful of the drink inside.

It was the single biggest risk I had taken in my life so far, it saddens me to say.
When I felt the liquid enter my mouth I knew that it was something very potent. I felt the strong taste of hard liquor, but also something else, something I couldn’t put my finger on. It was like drinking the stars and the sky, it was like drinking the summer breeze, it was like tasting the milky way and the first kiss from someone you adore completely.
When the stark liquid had warmed my insides I put the tap back on and placed the bottle on top of the bureau where I kept my treasures. I wound the statue up again and lay down in the couch to listen to the enticing melody.

The owl in my dream was beautiful. It hovered over me as I lay with my arms spread out on a flowery meadow and suddenly I was up there, looking down on myself and I saw my body transforming.

My hair, that I usually cut short, got even shorter. My jaw went from smooth feminine jaw to a rather square masculine one and I grew a stubble. My breasts vanished and instead there was just muscle. I could see each of my feminine features fade away, being replaced by this gorgeous, middle-aged masculine body. I knew it was still me. I was still inside. The soul was me, but this was not just something that I had wanted to be but something I had identified with my whole life, for a long time without realizing it. This body still had its faults, but it was completely mine and that was something I had never really been able to claim. In the dream the owl carried me down again and I entered this new, and not new, body.
My body.

I woke up on the couch, the music still playing in my head. I felt revitalized and I realized I had slept through the night because light was seeping in through the window. I got up and into the toilet and sat down to relieve myself. It felt different. I walked to the mirror and the shock I felt wasn’t the shock I usually feel in the mornings.

It was really me staring back from the mirror. For the first time in my life I felt as if it was actually me in the mirror and not someone else entirely. For as long as I could remember the reaction I’d had when looking into the mirror in the mornings had been that of a quiet dismay over the fact that the woman staring at me wasn’t me at all, the reflection didn’t belong to me and nothing I did had changed that.

But now there I was. It really was me and the eyes staring back at me were those of a man, and not of a woman.
It wasn’t so much a shock as it was a relief to see the stubble on my chin, to feel the extra organ in my pants and the lack of breasts underneath my shirt. It was a gigantic relief.
My outfit looked very wrong though, and that made me laugh. In fact it made me laugh so hard that I had to sit down on the bathroom floor. The shirt and the slim trainers had seemed exactly right when I bought them, womanly without being too feminine, now they just looked strange.

I took them off and went back to stare at myself in the mirror. People sometimes talk about what they’d do if they suddenly found themselves with the organ of the opposite sex. Now suddenly I had the organ I had always expected, the stubble and all the rest too and these feelings were all clear and in focus when before I had pushed them as deep as I could, never thinking about it. And I found myself thinking: What a fool I’ve been for being afraid. The estranged feeling of the awkward body I had possessed before was suddenly crystal clear when it had been just a lingering sensation for decades, a sensation that rose each morning only to be pushed down by ferocity I normally didn’t possess in my waking life.

When I called Betty to ask her to go in for me I told her I had a bad cold. Then I put on a pair of masculine trainers and a t-shirt I had lying around and I spent the day with myself, completely and totally in myself. Completely and totally happy with myself and I just couldn’t get enough of my mirror image.

The hangovers the next day were severe. It wasn’t headache, nor did I feel shaky, but I felt all the heaviness of having had something I had wanted my whole life and then lost it.
I put on my normal clothes and I went to work feeling like the darkness inside me would never subside. After lunch I asked Betty if she minded staying alone for the afternoon and close the store. She said I still looked a little peaked and told me to go home and lie down.
I hesitated before going into the thrift store, but I decided to risk the embarrassment though the thought was excruciating.

So I went in there again and after a short chit-chat I asked the old lady about the bottle.
“I hesitated to tell you,” the old lady said, “It came with a note, but it’s too strange, I figured I’d never be able to sell the damned thing. And it was such a pretty bottle.”
“It is,” I told her. She gave me an envelope. It was yellow with age, but the paper was still thick and the letters clearly visible.
“Take it with you,” the woman said and shrugged her shoulders. “You already have the bottle. I’m sure this is all just a bit of bullshit to make the thing seem mysterious”.
I took the letter and walked home. The bottle seemed to be glimmering more viciously than it had before as I put the envelope on the bureau beside it. I took off my working clothes and I put on the trainers and shirt I had been wearing the day before. I sighed deeply before pouring myself a glass of red wine and picking up the envelope to read the letter. Food was the last thing on my mind.
The envelope wasn’t sealed. I just opened it and pulled out the letter. The handwriting was smooth, and small and I assumed that of a woman.

Dear you,
whoever you are,

This flask contains a dream brew. The magic is yours, but so is the risk. To live your dream is often the most difficult thing for us human beings. Maybe this will help but it comes with a great risk. As with all poison it contains a hint of the raw material and with all things that entice the mind to be happier than it needs to be you might find yourself at the bad side of the spectrum. This might mean that your body can’t take it, your liver might give up or your mind might snap. If you do manage to get through the entire bottle however, without bad things happening, then the magic it contains is yours for life. The dream is within reach. Do you dare take the chance?

Cheerfully yours,

I didn’t know what to think of this. The name was hard to decipher. It could very well read Magnus or something else entirely, but that was the least of my worries. Was this some strange hallucinatory poison I had drunk? A drug of some kind to trick the mind? I hadn’t felt drunk or high in any way, but what other explanation could there be?

It didn’t take me long to get the small glass out again and take another drink from the flask. I fell asleep on the couch as I had before and found myself flying curtesy of the owl. When I woke up early next morning I felt like myself again. I had stubbled cheeks and a morning hard-on.

I called Betty and told her I was worse again and she said she’d take care of the store. This time I didn’t stay inside though. I put the t-shirt and trainers on and was about to go outside when I found that my shoes were too small.

The only shoes that fit me were old crocks I had bought a few sizes too large because my foot had swollen. Wearing this ridiculous outfit I still felt more like myself than ever before. I walked into one of those large clothing stores were I could usually browse and buy clothes without being hassled by a lot of sales personnel and though they, uncharacteristically, did ask me several times if I needed any help I managed to pick a pair of jeans, a shirt, a t-shirt and even a pair of shoes that fit nicely. I also bought a jacket for good measure. Then I asked the clerk if I could use one of their changing booths to change into the clothes and she just looked at me, smiled and nodded her head. I even think there was a wink of an eye, a gesture I didn’t remember being at the receiving end of for a very long time, if ever.

I didn’t want to go home, so I figured I’d take the body out for a spin. I walked the streets at first and when I saw my aunt, the woman that had involuntarily been the cause of all this, I couldn’t but stop and chat with her, though I didn’t expect her to recognize me.
She did though.

“You look well,” she said, “You are eating your spinach, aren’t you?” she said and smiled.
I just told her I was and asked how she and uncle Pete were doing. She proceeded to inform me of their ailments, but all in all she seemed content. When she was finished speaking of herself she smiled. “And when will I receive that wedding invitation?” she asked.
I smiled, probably a bit sadly, and told her that I wasn’t sure that would ever happen.
She just shushed me and said: “What? A handsome guy like you? The ladies must be throwing themselves at you. Or the guys, we’re open minded these days. And you have all the time in the world, the best years are a head of you.”

This was a speech I hadn’t quite heard before and I couldn’t but laugh. I told her I needed to get going. She told me to stop by some day, say hi to uncle Pete and the cat and I told her I would.

She didn’t say a single thing about my gender. She didn’t seem to think it was odd at all. As I stood there on the pavement and it started to drizzle I realized that this had been my biggest fear. Facing other people after admitting to the world who I was. My real identity coming out, having people question it, asking me about it, telling me how I was wrong to feel what I felt. And here I was with a drink that made all these fears go away? I felt like I was cheating, doing something wrong almost. But this drink made my dream come true without any of the horror I had associated with it, it seemed. How could I not proceed to take a sip of the drink every night?

I went to work the next day as a man and though Betty did look at me twice she didn’t say a single word about it. She did however ask me to eat dinner with her sometime.
“We spend the days together but I know so little about you,” she said, “Can’t we change that?”

I told her that we could, but not until I was feeling a bit better.
The day went by as it usually did, except I was rid of the melancholy that usually filled my chest. Instead I had a hint of hope and though I knew that hope came with risk, I thought that feeling this sense of wholeness would be worth it. I couldn’t imagine going back.

The problems started the next day. I felt lethargic and tired. My body felt stretched and I ached all over. I was so sensitive to the touch that I couldn’t continue shaving in the mornings. Instead I let the stubble grow into a beard. I couldn’t sleep, and when I slept I dreamt nervous, anxious dreams. After two weeks I ran a constant fever and could hardly get out of bed.

I figured this thing was slowly killing me, but I couldn’t stop drinking from the bottle, one small glass each night. With each glass my body seemed to get weaker, ache more and still I drank. My hair started falling off and I could barely feed myself. When Betty came knocking on my door I didn’t open, but left her a message on the phone telling her I’d caught some nasty bug and would tell her when I got better. I wasn’t sure myself that I was going to make it or if they’d find me in my bed after having poisoned myself to death.
I still couldn’t stop drinking.

When I had consumed the last of the bottle, every drop, I dreamt a dream.
It wasn’t unlike the other dream, except the owl left me there on the meadow with my masculine body. It cooed softly and for a moment I thought I felt a surge of electricity go through my mind. I thought my body would explode from it, thought my mind would turn dark and figured that this was it, I would die now from whatever atrocities this poison did to my body.

And then I woke up, still in my masculine body. I was weak, but I was still alive.
The next day I almost couldn’t sleep from fear that I would wake up with my old body back and all the hardship would have been in vain.
I had a terrible headache the entire day, my body still ached horribly, but when I woke up the second day it was a bit better. I rushed to the mirror and for a moment I thought it had all been in vain. I figured I would have years of therapy and operations a head of me. I collapsed on the bathroom floor before I saw myself in the mirror but sitting there  I realized that I could do that. That it wasn’t impossible. That if push came to shove and this bottle had deprived me of the magic it had promised then at least it had given me one thing. Certainty. I was sure of what I wanted and needed.

I stood up ready to face the feminine jaw, ready to tackle whatever disappointment would stare back at me.
I noticed my hands before I ever looked into the mirror. They weren’t the soft, smooth hands of a woman but the strong hands of a man.
I may have to learn how to shave properly now. I may have to learn a lot of things, but I felt as if someone had given me a part of my soul back, given me wings to live, giving me a part of myself I had been missing my whole life. It’s hard not to be able to face your own mirror image.

Living is a lot easier when you’re whole.

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