This story is about a set of magic bongos. Sounds cool, right? Wrong. It’s a stupid idea for a story. I think I should point out at this point that it wasn’t my idea. Hopefully the ridiculous concept will be redeemed by the life-changing moral that comes at its conclusion. I hope so, at least. I suppose that’s the real magic I’m writing about here, be it from bongos or be it from a set of words on a computer screen. Whether you believe in it or not is another thing entirely.
Here is a girl of about fifteen or so. Imagine her any way you like – as a pretty young slip with soft brown pasta-curls of hair; as a an awkward but happy-go-lucky young woman with one wonky eye; as a shy and chubby girl in broken glasses, bound together in silver tape. I don’t mind. Her image isn’t important to the story, so I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks in whatever way you see fit. The important part is that she isn’t feeling so great right now. The other girls are picking on her. They make fun of the fact that her clothes aren’t quite as nice as theirs, they laugh when she tries to speak and stutters, her face turning red. They call her names like ‘big-nose’ and ‘greaseball’ – the most insulting thing about it all, she realizes, is that these are generic insults that have been used for generations. They don’t even bother being creative with it. The boys are a little better – they simply fail to notice her, acting as though she doesn’t exist.
So she wanders around, this ghost-girl, lost to the world, as out of place as a red jigsaw piece in a puzzle of clear blue sky. She has a few friends. They’re nice enough, but they each lack the self-confidence in themselves to stick up for her, or to even to cheer her up when she’s down.
Her home life is miserable. Her mother works as a cleaner in four or five hotels and bars, finding work where she can. Her father died a long time ago. So it goes.
She comes home one day and finds a set of bongos in her room. On the outside they look just like a regular set of bongos – two tea-coloured bowls, joined at the middle, round like a perfect set of breasts (although hers still aren’t even beginning to show, she reflects). They are sat on her bed when she comes in. No note, nothing to say how they got there. Her mother is out, and has been since before the girl left for school that morning. No one else could have got into their shabby old house – not that they’d want to, either.
She realises that there’s no possible way that the bongos could have just appeared there by themselves, and yet on another level she doesn’t particularly care where they came from. She doesn’t care where they came from because she is planning to kill herself very shortly, and as miracles go, finding a set of bongos isn’t a particularly good one. Like, wow! Bongos! Life is good again! Not. Her life is still terrible, bongos or no bongos.
Still, she can’t help but be a little curious. If it were flowers, her hopes might be raised (a secret admirer – who could it be who could it be who could it BE?!?) but as it is she feels only a light sense of bemusement. On a whim she sits, lifts the bongos onto her laps, and gives them a go.
The first bongo goes BOM. The second one goes PAP. She can make a rhythm as such:
BOM, PAP. BOM-BOM, PAP.
And so forth. She plays around for a while. At first the rhythms she grooves on are basic, her timing sloppy, her playing inconsistent. But after a little while she’s throwing done some serious techniques – she plays the Martillo, throwing in trills and syncopated stomps here and there. Mutes, slaps, casual flicks. Complex triplet-rhythms and ostinato dance-sections. She brings it down only it bring it right back up again, playing so hard and fast that it would put any self respecting Cuban musician to shame.
As she plays a fine green dust rises into the air, forming into a cloud. She’s so wrapped up in her playing that she doesn’t even notice, and as the music continues the dust-cloud grows and changes shape. It becomes a man – a small one, no more than three feet high. He floats in the air with a tiny green smile upon his tiny green face, nodding enthusiastically at her playing.
When his form is complete she stops suddenly, realizing for the first time that he is there, watching her. Her hands freeze and all sound dies away – except, that is, for the steady thump-thump of her heart, which by now is beating so hard that it feels like a big red jumping bean in her stomach.
She recognizes him for what he is. He is a genie.
He applauds when she stops. His tiny hands rattle together with genuine affection. She can only stare at him as he does this, unsure of how of how to react.
His words dance in a thick Cuban accent which she associates immediately with salsa music.
“Bravo!” he cries, still clapping. “Bravo, child! You play with conviction that makes an old man like me go wild. It’s been years since I’ve heard such a sound, trapped for such a long time in my prison underground. You make me sing – ay-ay! And now I have to say-say... I have a gift for you! It’s true! Don’t look so blue – you can guess what it is, can’t you?”
“Three wishes?” she asks hopefully.
“Ay Carumba! No, child.”
Her face falls.
“But I can give you two,” he offers, smiling a wide and greasy smile.
“Two?” she asks.
“Two! Just as there are two drums on your lap there. Just as there are two crotchet-measures in a bar of salsa! Just as there are two variations of the clave, and two people in a dance! Two, my child. Two.”
“I wish I could be happy,” she says after a moment.
“Done,” says the genie. “Fácil. Easy. If I found the piano so simple I’d be a regular Eddie Palmieri by now. But you have another wish, I allow.”
“Hang on,” she says. “I don’t feel any different.” This is true – the genie has taken her mind off her depression, but it’s still there, lingering beneath it all, cold and malicious like a black cat waiting to pounce. She still feels sad; not happy at all.
“Of course not, child,” he says. “You wished that you could be happy, and you can. Just as you always could. Ahora, wish numero dos, por favor.”
“Well then, I wish I knew how,” she says.
The genie looks at her sceptically.
“As wishers go you really are bad,” he says. “Here’s how to be happy – never be sad!”
She frowns. “You’re the worst genie ever,” she says.
He laughs at that. “You may keep the bongos. Buenos noches, child.” And all at once he starts fading away. The dust separates and becomes a cloud again. It disperses into the air and moments later it’s gone, leaving no trace that there was ever anything there at all.
The girl sighs and puts the bongos away to one side. She wonders whether she’s imagined the whole thing – after all, it’s not as if the genie has given her anything tangible to prove his existence... nothing, that is, except an old set of bongo drums. No wealth or riches, no new clothes or sudden, indescribable beauty. That was her own fault, she realizes. She had been given the wishes.
She gets up and goes to get a glass of water. Whilst she’s doing that she thinks about what the genie has said, and wonders whether it’s really true.
She doesn’t kill herself. The next day she goes into school and the taunts continue. For some reason they don’t get to her as much, though. She turns the other cheek.
That’s the end of the story, really. It’s a little short, but it had magic bongos in it, so don’t complain.
Anyway, the moral. The moral... Let’s see... Don’t trust Spanish-speaking salsa genies, how about that? Sadness is just an illusion. Will that do? Don’t write stories on a bet with another UG’er. The moral is... I don’t know, I’m tired.
Just be happy, okay? Let’s leave it at that.
You don’t even need a set of bongos.