Circles

    Peter Terwilliger drew a circle in the dirt, the circumference larger than his head.  He drew an X in the center. 
      "There," he said.  "Spit in it and make a wish. It'll come true."
      I didn't believe him, of course.  I might have been only seven years old, but I knew a thing or two.  Spit didn't make wishes any more than it made polish.  But I was sweet on Peter Terwilliger, who sat next to me in first grade, though I never showed it. 
      I spat and said, "I wish Old Man Johannson would die." 
      "Not out loud, stupid," Peter Terwilliger said, by which I knew he liked me. 
      Old Man Johannson didn't die, or at least not all at once.  But he had a stroke that very night and spent the better part of a month drooling and staring at the wall.  Enough time, in fact, for my father to get the money we needed to save our farm - Mama never dared ask him from where - kand to pay off Old Man Johannson's heirs.  They were just as mean as their father, tying the rest of the estate up in the courts for years. But Dad managed to sell our farm, poor as it was, for more than it was worth, and   he moved us to the city.
      I never saw Peter Terwilliger again.
      In the city, Dad drank up all of the farm money and took to abusing Mama, first in small and then in big ways.  He started by cursing her out, calling her down for her cooking or her mending or the dust under the bed.  Itprogressed from there to pulling her hair and pinching her.  One time he tripped her as she went by with a plate of mashed potatoes and she fell, breaking her arm.  "It was an accident," she swore, and I believed her. 
      The night he beat her, however, was when I stopped believing.  I could hear her trying to keep his voice and her cries low enough so as not to wake me or the neighbors.  I got out of bed and trundled downstairs, not even bothering to put on my shoes or coat, though it was colder than a mine shaft outside. 
       I drew a circle in the dirt of an empty lot next door, bigger around than Peter Terwilliger's head, or what I remembered of it.  Then I drew an X in the center. 
       "Make Dad leave Mama alone," I said, and spat. 
       He left her the next night for a blowsy waitress at the bar he frequented.  It wasn't quite what I had had in mind. 
       Mama never recovered from his desertion and she never remarried. She raised me up alone. 
       It took a third wish to make me understand that my spit wishes   worked, but they sure didn't go in circles.  More like ellipses.  Of course     at seven and then at eight I didn't even know the word, much less its
meaning.  But I understood enough that I didn't make any more spit wishes for years. 
       When I was sixteen and mad at the world, but in particular at Mama, who was stricter than anyone else's mother, a spit wish I made when I was drunk with friends at a school dance led me to the understanding of this odd power I had. 
      Between Jemmy Sanders and Stephen Gallagher and Curtis Bast and me, we had downed a fifth of vodka.  Jemmy and Curtis had gotten sick and Stephen had more or less passed out, making us wonder how we were going to get home since he was the only one old enough for a license or a car.  The vodka just made me extraordinarily happy and loose. 
      "Car?" I said. "We don't need no stinking car.  I'm a witch.  I've got magic." 
      "Pumpkins?" mumbled Jemmy, in between bouts of puking.  "You gonna turn a pumpkin into a coach?"
      "Even better," I said.  "Just you watch."  I drew a circle bigger than    Peter Terwiliger's head.  Bigger even than his head would have been at sixteen.  I drew an X in the center.  Okay-it was a bit wobbly. So was I.  But it a recognizable X.  Then I leaned over and spat in it.
      "Cool," said Curtis. 
      "Gross," said Jemmy, and she promptly threw up again, well outside the circle. 
      I laughed.  "I wish we had a ride," I said. 
      At that very moment a police car pulled up next to us.  In it was Haps Parker, the town constable and Stephen's stepfather.  He waited until Jemmy and Curtis were through being sick.  He waited until 1 stopped giggling.  He slapped Stephen two or three times to wake him, then took, us to the clinic for coffee and a thorough evaluation. 
      "I can't let your mother see you like this," he said several times to    Stephen.   Haps was actually a nice guy; Stephen's dad had been a falling - down drunk. 
      That's how we spent half the night in the clinic and that's where I first met Polly Bangs, a nurse and a real witch.  And that's where I learned how to control my circles of magic.  Quite a ride indeed. 
      Polly said the trick was in the spit, not the circle.  All bodily fluids,     actually, contain magic.  As a nurse she had access to the lot of them: spit,
blood, urine, etc.  Of course not everyone could just spit or pee and wish, or we'd be neck deep in wishes.  That was Polly's line, not mine.  You had to be born with the talent, like me. 
      After she told me - cleaned up Jemmy and Curtis and Stephen and told me - a lot of things became clear.  Like my not getting drunk.  Like my good grades in school, even though I never studied.  Like Stephen, the most popular and best - looking guy in the class, falling for me.  I had wished those things and they had happened.  Not wishes with a circle, but wishes nonetheless.  I remembered the evening I had discovered how much I wanted Stephen and I sat in the bathroom and alternately cried and had the runs.  And wished he liked me.  Wished as hard as I could.  And he did. 
      "You mean," I whispered to Polly, "that I can have anytbing I want just by wishing?" 
      She shook her head.  "You can get anything you wish for, but it won't ever be exactly what you expect.  You are untrained.  Wishes don't go in easy circles.  They go in ellipses." 
      "We studied those in algebra," I said, remembering suddenly that I hadn't studied very hard.  "Made graphs and everything."  I had gotten an A and learned nothing.  "Besides, I do, too, get exactly what I want.  I got Stephen."  I looked fondly over at him.  He was sitting at the table with Jemmy and Curtis and drinking coffee.  The little lock of blond hair fell down over his forehead.  I loved that lock.  I really did.  Even if he was a funny color, kind of green, at the moment.
      Polly touched my hand gently and mumbled something, and Stephen seemed to age thirty years.  It was as if I were sitting across a kitchen table from him and he was that same funny color, apologizing to me - once again - for getting drunk, and promising it wouldn't happen again.  I looked down.  My hands, folded on the table, were shaking.  My wrists and arms were bruised.  I shook my head and everything was the same as before.  Only it wasn't.  Suddenly I didn't want Stephen anymore.  Not even a little.
      "Ellipses," I whispered, sort of like underlining a word in a textbook
    to aid in remembering it.  "Ellipses."
      I went back to the clinic every weekend after that. My mom thought I was interested in becoming a nurse.  Actually I was studying witchcraft with Polly.  We borrowed slides of blood samples from patients, which I studied under the microscope to learn about identifying witches. Witches' blood makes more white cells.  Taken to the hospital, we are thought to be leukemic . Treated, we get sicker.  Unless we are treated by a witch doctor.
      Okay - I laughed the first time I heard that, too.  But Polly made sure I got to know the names of those doctors who were witches themselves, and who worked locally.  She made sure my name got on the master list so they would know me as well.
      And then, after I understood all the background, she taught me how to work on my wishes.
      I would never be able to make them less elliptical.  That's the nature    of wishes.  But I did learn how to anticipate the worst of the results.  That way I could change the actual wording of the wish or decide not to make the wish at all.
      I got good and I got older.
      I studied with Polly all the way through high school and then decided to study medicine in college.  I became a doctor and used my talent to help good folk get well.  Bad folk - well, I just left them to their bodies' own devices.
      And then one day - it was June 17 - a man was brought into the
emergency room where I was working.  He was pretty badly torn up; his color and general state of wear and tear made me recognize him as a drunk.  He had been a big man once but age and other stuff had shrunk him down like one of those apples off the tree. 
       But I knew him. Hadn't seen him since I was a kid, but I knew him.
A witch knows her own.
       "Hello, Dad," I whispered. His eyes widened but he was much too       sick to answer back.  I took his vital signs.  They weren't good at all.  My guess was he had next to no liver function left.  I patched him up and stitched him up.  I did everything that medicine could do, which wasn't enough.
        He had just enough strength to grab my wrist.  "Want a drink . . he murmured.
        I closed the white curtains around us, cocooning us from the rest of the world.  I stared down at him for a long while.
        "Do it for me," he begged.
        I drew a circle around his head on the gurney with my finger.  I put
a little cross on the right side, just by his ear.  Not necessary, I knew, but the memories of that child in the cold empty lot were suddenly quite strong.
        "Dad," I said slowly, I wish you wouldn't die." hen, knowing no one could see us with the white curtains closed, I spat - very accurately - onto his forehead. 
         He cried out once and closed his eyes.  He didn't even have the         strength to wipe away the spit, but lay there still as death.  I watched as my spit dried on his skin, as his skin turned cool, then cold.
         I opened the white curtains at last and went to the next patient, a
child who had broken her arm.  It was a quick and easy fix, and we traded knock - knock jokes all the while I was plastering the thing.
         Dad lingered for fifteen years that way, floating in and out of           consciousness, full of needles, full of pain, not alive, not dead.
          Mama visited him once out of memory and once out of mercy, and
never again.
          At the hospital he was a kind of mascot and a kind of teaching tool.  He lasted the entire time I was there.  When I retired, I let him go, pulling the witching plug.  I was the only mourner at his funeral.
           At night I dream of him, large and still and cold and not quite        dead.  I expect I always will.
           Ellipses. 

 


 

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