The Devil's Storybooks

Twenty Delightfully Wicked Stories

Natalie Babbitt; Illustrated by the author

Square Fish

The Devil's Storybooks
The Devil's Storybook
WISHES
ONE DAY when things were dull in Hell, the Devil fished around in his bag of disguises, dressed himself as a fairy godmother, and came up into the World to find someone to bother. He wandered down the first country road he came to and before long he met a crabby farm wife stumping along with a load of switches on her back.
"Good morning, my dear," said the Devil in his best fairy-godmother voice. "It's a fine day, isn't it?"
"It's not," said the farm wife. "There hasn't been a fine day in the World in twenty years."
"That long?" said the Devil.
"That long," she snapped.
Now, it was the Devil's plan that morning to make a nuisance of himself by granting wishes, and he decided there was no time like now to begin. "See here then," he said to the farm wife. "I will grant you one wish--anything at all--and that ought to cheer you up."
"One wish?" said the farm wife.
"One," he replied.
"Very well," said the farm wife. "Here's my wish. Since I don't believe in fairy godmothers, I wish you'd go back where you came from and leave me alone."
This wish caught the Devil off guard and before he knew it he had landed with a bump in his throne room in Hell. Up he rose, his hair on end with anger. "That's one I'll get someday, anyway," he said to himself, and back he went to the World to find another victim.
The next soul he met was a very old man who sat under a tree staring away at nothing.
"Good morning, old man," said the Devil in hisbest fairy-godmother voice. "It's a fine day, isn't it?"
"One of many," said the old man. "One of many."
The Devil didn't like this answer at all. It sounded too contented. "See here then," he said to the old man. "I will grant you one wish--anything at all--but I can guess what you'll choose to wish for."
"What's that?" said the old man.
"Why," said the Devil, "seeing as your life is nearly done, my guess is you'll wish to be a boy again."
The old man pulled at his whiskers for a while and then he said, "No, not that. It was good to be a boy, but not all good."
"Then," pursued the Devil, "you'll wish to return to young manhood."
"No," said the old man. "It was good to be a young man, but still--it was difficult, too. No, that wouldn't be my wish."
The Devil began to feel annoyed. "Well then," he said, "surely you'll wish to be once more in your prime, a hearty soul of forty or fifty."
"No," said the old man, "I wouldn't wish that. It was good to be forty and good to be fifty, but those times were often hard as well."
"What age will you wish to be, then?" barked the Devil, losing his patience at last.
"Why should I want to be any age but this one?" said the old man. "That was your idea. One time is as good as another, and just as bad, too, for that matter. I'd wish for something different--I don't know what --if I really had a wish."
"Well," said the Devil, "I've changed my mind anyway. You don't have a wish."
"I didn't think I did," said the old man, and he went back to staring away at nothing.
The Devil ground his teeth and smoke came out of his ears, but he went on down the road until at last he came to a vain young man in fancy clothes riding on a big brown horse. "Good morning, young man," said the Devil in his best fairy-godmother voice. "It's a fine day, isn't it?"
"Indeed it is, dear madam," said the vain young man, taking off his hat and bowing as well as he could from the saddle.
"Well now," said the Devil, "you're such a fine young man, I think I'll grant you a wish. One wish, anything you like. What do you say to that?"
"A wish?" cried the vain young man, dropping his hat. "Anything I want? Can it really be true?"
"It can," said the Devil, smiling. "What will you wish for?"
"Dear me!" said the vain young man. "Anything at all? I could wish to be rich, couldn't I!"
"You could," said the Devil.
"But on the other hand I could wish that all the girls would fall in love with me," said the vain young man, beginning to grow excited. "Or I could wish to be the Crown Prince. Or the King! I could even wish to rule the whole World, as far as that goes."
"You could," said the Devil, smiling more than ever.
"Or I could wish to stay young and handsome forever," said the vain young man.
"You could," said the Devil.
"But wait!" cried the vain young man. "Perhaps it would be better to wish for perfect health. What good are all those other things if you're too sick to enjoy them?"
"True," said the Devil.
"Oh, dear," moaned the vain young man, wringing his hands. "What to wish for! What to choose! I shall go quite mad, trying to decide! Health, power, money, love, endless youth, each a perfect wish all by itself. Sweet fairy godmother, I wish you'd tell me what to wish for!"
"If that's what you want, all right," said the Devil with a smile as big as the moon. "Most people think the best wish of all is to wish that every wish they ever wish will always come true."
The young man's eyes grew round and his cheeks paled. "Yes. Yes!" he said. "They're right, of course.That is the best. All right, so here I go. I wish that every wish I ever wish will always come true."
"Too late," said the Devil gleefully.
The young man stared. "Too late?" he cried. "But why? You said I could wish for anything, didn't you?"
"I did," grinned the Devil. "That's true. But you used up your wish when you wished I'd tell you what to wish for!"
And with the young man's wail of chagrin ringing in his ears, the Devil went back down to Hell, well satisfied at last.
THE DEVIL'S STORYBOOK. Copyright © 1974 by Natalie Babbitt. All rights reserved. Library of Congress catalog card number: 74-5488. THE DEVIL'S OTHER STORYBOOK. Copyright © 1987 by Natalie Babbitt. All rights reserved. Library of Congress catalog card number: 86-32760.