Palo Alto Weekly 17th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place

The Prophet of Oz

by Emily Risberg

"And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to it of Children. And he said: Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you." -Kalilil Gibran, 1923

About Emily Risberg

Palo Altan Emily Risberg has been writing fiction for four years, and has been playing with this particular story for quite some time.

"I had the idea because my brother had leukemia when I was just a kid. I had tried writing it from a child's point of view, but I was very hard to do. I found writing it as if I was the mother made it easier to get some emotions across," Risberg said.

She is a professional technical writer, and has been for the past 10 years, but it is only more recently that she has tried her hand at fiction.

"About four years ago I had a good idea for a story so I thought I would try my had at some fiction writing. Currently I have weekly workshops with the writer Ellen Fessman in Los Altos," Emily says. "What I've learned is that some times you must lie in order to tell the truth."

Emily is married to Jeff and together they have two children, Brandon and Lauren.

"Being a parent has made it a lot easier for me write this story. I feel that anyone who is a parent can probably relate to my story, as it is a fear that every parent has," she said.

-- Ollie Danby

"Tell me another joke, Mom," he says. "But make this one funny"

I try. I tell him the one about the guy who tries to keep a fish from smelling by cutting off its nose. He cracks a smile and gives me the "so-so" wave with his hand. The IV tubing swings like a suspension bridge in a gale wind. I tell him the one about the needle that can't be threaded; it keeps shutting its eye. He giggles this time, braces glistening. I'm on a roll. Did you hear the one about the educated cannibal? He still eats his enemies but now he uses a knife and fork.
Just when I think I have emptied my mailbag of comedy for the ten and under crowd, a glint from Kevin's full moon eyes, wet from laughter, pulls at me like gravity and I deliver another joke. And another. And another.

A buzzer startles me. A red light blinks. It's the kind of alert that, at the airport, sends you to the security guard to empty your pockets of heavy metal objects. It tells the nurses down the hall the IV bag needs replacing.

"Keep going," he says. "The bag won't run out for at least ten more minutes."

My audience is hooked. Has he heard the one about the lady who finds Elmer Fudd inside her refrigerator? What are you doing there? she says. Elmer says, This is a Westinghouse, isn't it? The lady nods. Elmer says, Well I'm just westing.

"Do you have more?" he asks.

Oh, yes.

For him I will always have more.

"Let's see ... okay ... how do you make a sculpture of an elephant?"

Kevin widens his eyes and slaps his palm to his forehead. "You should know!"

He's right. I'm a sculptor. "I know. Honey. It's just a joke." And it is. After all these years, I still have no idea how I do it.

He shakes his head and shrugs. "Okay then. How?"

"Get a block of clay and carve away all that doesn't look like an elephant."

He frowns. "Nice try" he says, then scratches the bare skin on his head.

His head reminds me of one of those white pumpkins you sometimes see at Halloween. After ten months I'm still not used to it. Hair loss is for old people. I keep touching my own head where, thank God, the hair is still growing. Graying slightly, but still growing. He is used to his head. He never wears his Giants cap anymore and quips at how quickly he is in and out of the bath.

I'm ashamed to admit it but I wish he'd wear the hat. I feel afraid when I see his head, and that's when the trouble starts. Feeling fear when your child has leukemia is natural -- this is not the problem. What troubles me is that I pretend he is not my son. I become a passerby in my own life, uninvolved, uninvested. A person with nothing to lose staring at someone else's child who happens to look just like Kevin. In my mind, the woman stranger holding his hand looks confident, unlike me, pulling him along to his next appointment. She glares at me steadily as I watch them. Then she turns abruptly, tugs his arm and says, Come along sweetie, staring is so rude.

As a child I learned that I could feel less afraid by pretending. When my parents fought I pretended it was not my parents I was hearing. I hid in a dark closet to muffle the sounds. As the ruckus intensified the closet became a darkened theater. I sat back, placed my Coke in the hole in the armrest and watched the "Three Stooges" ruin a formal dinner party. When I heard ashtrays bang on walls or lamps shatter on floors I imagined Larry flipping the buffet table while Curly hurled pies at Moe. And if my father hit her, I shut my eyes. Slap! went Moe's hand on Curly's forehead. Poke! went Moe's fingers into Larry's eyes.

We call this hospital The Land of Oz. Its inhabitants are small with young voices like Munchkins, the hallway floors have a two-foot-wide strip of yellow linoleum along each side, and it is definitely not Kansas. "Oz" is also Kevin's favorite video-this month, at least-especially the part when the flying monkeys take off with Toto-the same part that still scares the bejeezus out of me.

But there's Ping-Pong in the rec room, popcorn and movie nights, turkey on Thanksgiving. A home away from home. I have even promised to sculpt and glaze some Oz figurines to place around his room. His dresser at home is littered with small sculptures I have made, hand-painted scenes from Jurassic Park, Lost in Space, and Star Wars to name a few. Once I asked him, Wouldn't you rather have a plastic action figure, like your friends, so you can twist off the head and run it over with your bike? He scowled. No, he said, they look so fake compared to yours.

Later he asks, "Mom, when I come back, do I get to pick what I want to be?" Whenever I think I have rehearsed all the questions and all the answers, he stumps me on something.

"I'm not real sure about that but --"

"Because if I get to pick I think I want to be a tortoise."

"A tortoise?" I say, expecting him to say lion ... or tiger ... or bear ... oh my! I mean, really, have his expectations been so undermined that he can't, at the very least, choose a mammal?

"They live for a l-o-n-g time," he says. "And they have built-in protection like a force field."

I nod, then look away.

It's fair to say we're not religious, even though I was raised Catholic and my husband, Jake, Methodist. We both like to say we endured a lifetime of religion before hair sprouted in our armpits. Nowadays, we see the inside of spiritual dwellings at weddings and selected religious holidays. But I notice Jake has taken to reading Gibran. "The Prophet" sits on his bedside table, next to "Stranger in a Strange Land" and "Creating Killer Web Sites." One night I opened the book and thumbed to the bookmark, " ... Much of your pain is self-chosen. It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility: For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen, and the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears." I'm not sure exactly what it's supposed to mean, but I know for a fact that tears are not a reliable source of moisture. They're hard to control, and too much moisture will ruin a good lump of clay.

Kevin says he wants to watch some TV so we surf the channels. We prop the adjustable bed to the optimal viewing angle and kick back. Jerry Springer. Infomercials. We settle on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and learn that it's Commander Data's turn to rescue the entire crew of the Enterprise with seconds to spare.

He says space travel makes him hungry so I head down two floors in the elevator to the cafeteria for Cheetos, Dr. Pepper, a box of Mike & Ikes for later.

This is another time I might pretend he is not my son -- I have no excuse because his bare scalp is not even around to remind my stomach to plunge. But this is how I might do it: Instead of going to the cafeteria, I imagine signing in at the front desk as a visitor. I'm holding Pokemon comic books or a new GameBoy cartridge. I smile warmly at the nurses writing on charts, tell them I know my way, thank you; I have been a good friend and visited many times. I enter his room whistling, convinced I can spread cheer in this grim place, and pull open his curtain. Ta-da, I say, I'm here. He is so happy to see me, the woman with the ostrich legs and orthodontic smile bearing gifts. I hand him something he has wanted for weeks. We giggle, laugh, talk about Darth Vader. A bit later, I glance at my watch, Look at the time! I must be going. More smiles, laughter, giggling, then I leave and go back to some other life.

When I get back to Kevin's room with a tray of snacks, the nurse is there, the one he calls Glinda, the good nurse. But there is a problem. She needs a blood sample. "I don't want to!" he says. "I don't have to. You can't tell me what to do!"

The nurse looks at me as if I am a co-conspirator in this behavior. As if he is a spoiled little brat with parents who read too many books about positive parenting. Good parents empower their children with choices, the books say. And I'm a good parent (when I'm not visiting). Ask anyone who knows me -- the mail carrier, my gynecologist, the Maytag repair man.

For example, the braces. Give the child ownership of the problem. Using force will create a power struggle. So of course I said, It's okay, when he refused to open his mouth the first time at the orthodontist's office. You don't feel ready for braces yet. We'll wait. You'll tell me when you are ready. I was so calm!

I imagine myself empowering him right now. It's okay, I will say. When you feel ready for this blood test, you will tell me.

Before I can finish imagining his empowerment, I am on the bed pinning his scrawny arms. He struggles as nurse Glinda lumbers toward him with the rubber tourniquet and syringe, my palms clammy against his wrists. This is not braces. He has no idea what's best for him, for me. He cries and tries to kick. He must hate being too weak to put up a good fight.

As I climb off the bed, heart banging away in my ears, Jake walks in, sits on the bed. His hand covers the bony knee under the lightweight cotton blanket. Kevin is crying. I move toward him and put my arms around his shoulders. He says, "Go away! I hate you!" then pushes against my chest with his hands, holding me at bay, but I'm too numb to feel pressure where he's touching me. It's as if I'm in this dream I often have where I need to run, I absolutely must move, I must get somewhere, but no matter how hard I try, I can't get my body to move. I step back and Kevin reaches for Jake. Each sob pierces my petrified heart, passing right through, and exploding on the other side, like the exit wound left by a bullet through bone.

Jake glances at me. He recognizes my expression, the one I get just before I pass by and head for the visitor's desk. He suggests a changing of the guard: go home for a while, take a shower, eat some decent food.

"Yes," I say. "Good idea." I don't know if it's a good idea, I just can't think of anything better to do.

" ... You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness; for even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Later that evening I am working at home in the studio, placing small figurines of the cowardly lion, the scarecrow, and the tin man into the kiln. The phone rings. It's Kevin.

"We have a bet," he says. "Dad bets that no one making a scene of the 'Wizard of Oz' would put a flying monkey in it. You made a monkey, didn't you?"
I nod at the phone. "The one holding Toto," I say. "It's right here on my workbench." I turn toward my work area.

"I knew you'd remember. I just knew it!" he says. "Dad owes me a buck."
I feel my heart miss a beat, then a tumble of the next ones as they rush to fill the space. "I'm having a little trouble, though," I add, "getting the wings right." That's not exactly true, but I don't want the phone call to end.

"That's okay ... like the joke. Carve away all that doesn't look like a monkey with wings."

"Why didn't I think of that?" I pick up the figurine of the flying monkey clutching Toto and turn it around and around in my hand, admiring the wings.

"Guess what?" he says. "I made up some jokes."

The muscles in my throat contract squeezing the back of my tongue. The cool clay warms and softens against my fingertips. "Let's hear one," I manage.

"Okay." Papers rustle through the receiver. He clears his throat. "Why does Nurse Glinda consider herself an artist?"

"I don't know. Why?"

He giggles. "Because she likes to draw blood."

I start to laugh at this. I laugh so hard I can barely breathe. Soon we are both laughing-from way down deep -- natural, unedited, artless bellows that reverberate together in rhythm and move the air through our ears like music