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The Wishbone

     My father uses his fingers to pick the chicken clean; only a few scraps remaining from a roast, nearly all the parts useful, even the carcass, which he boils down to the bones. He'll use the stock later, for a bland soup of potatoes and carrots. Once the wishbone is bare, he places it on the windowsill above the sink. It needs to dry out, he instructs, before it can be used. If you try to pull it apart before it is ready, before it is dry, he warns, it will not work.

     It is only later, when I am grown, that I ask why and how, and could it be?

     But I am a child. I still believe in magic, that destiny can be coaxed into place. If only I want it badly enough; if only I have the right technique; if only I choose the sturdier tine, the wish will be mine. Magic, like incense and rosary beads: the wishbone, a prayer. Please God, keep him safe. Please, let him live. So little was in my control then, and I knew it. But I could pray and I could sing, and I could figure out how to win the wishbone pull.

     I don't believe in magic now. My church — the church of my choosing — has no god, no prayer. Human rationality reigns supreme; we sing of hope and charity, but not faith. The scenes on the stained glass windows are of dinosaurs and ferns; the mosaics are of flowers and bees. There is no magic there. But sometimes, I slip like a thief into the Catholic Church — it is grand, with soaring ceilings, statues of the Virgin Mary, and stained glass windows depicting the suffering of Jesus. Those windows are so brilliant; and that glass alters both sunlight and darkness. I know that there's no magic there either, but I breathe in the incense. I intone the Latin. I hum the hymns that are as familiar to me as my own middle name, just there, beneath the surface.

     With each heart attack, his body struggles to adapt, demanding less and less, until it is hardly there at all. This takes years and reminds me of the slow and steady torment depicted in the Stations of the Cross. Towards the end, he is little more than a carcass -- scrawny, the muscles in his arms wasted, the skin around his neck sagging. He has trouble breathing when he lies down in bed, and so he begins to use oxygen -- but only at night, to help him sleep.

      The deliveryman from the medical-surgical supply store leaves his van idling in our driveway. After all, it only takes a moment to deliver that one tank. The tank sits, out of view, in my parents' bedroom. But as the months pass, my father needs the oxygen during the daytime, too. The deliveryman turns off the van. Three times he brings the dolly up the stairs, and then down, leaving the tall canisters in a corner of the den. They are like helium tanks, I think at the time, wondering whether I might use the compressed air to fill a balloon or to make my voice squeaky, like Donald Duck's.

      I've cooked a chicken. I use a knife and then my hands to pull the meat from the bones, placing it on the serving platter. I spoon the cooking liquids over the breast meat, the thighs, the drumsticks, and the wings. The fluids spill over the meat, and for a moment I think they will overflow the rim of the platter. My dogs wag their tails in anticipation of the windfall. I call my children and my husband to dinner.

      The oxygen tank is on wheels and he takes to bringing it with him as he moves around the house, though now, he moves slowly, needing to rest every few feet. I see how his chest rises and falls -- I imagine I can see his desperate heart beating beneath his translucent skin. And I wish: let today be the day, or tonight. Let the heart arrive soon, as if it were coming by stork or some other magic and not through someone else's tragedy. I can't see the donor, though, in my wishing. Or his family. I can only see my father, oxygen mask obscuring his face, sitting here in this den amidst the oversized history books stacked up on a nearby shelf.

      They had to crack open his chest to get to his heart. In medical terms, a sternotomy: in plain English, they cut into his wishbone, or rather, its human variant. You see, in birds, the wishbone fuses the neck and breast, an anatomical feature that makes flight possible. But people don't fly, so our wishbone -- identified by anatomists as that place where collarbones join sternum -- isn't completely fused. I imagine that my father's wishbone yielded easily to the jigsaw cutter; there was no need for the usual twisting or wriggling needed to remove a chicken's. His ruined heart laid bare, the surgeons simply clamped off the arteries and excised it from his chest. That wrecked heart, which has sustained my father, though not reliably and not well, through these last fifty-seven years, is discarded. The new heart, which up until this point has been chilling in a plastic beverage cooler packed in dry ice, is taken out, flushed, and stitched into place. My father's wishbone is stapled back together, with the kind of bulky industrial clips that I glimpse when the nurse comes in to change his dressing.

      My husband and children get up from the table. I return to the remnants of the chicken I've left on the cutting board. I feel for the wishbone, hidden deep in the carcass, and I wrest it free. I place it on my windowsill just like my father always did, but I see that I've been sloppy — some flesh still clings to the bone. I don't use the carcass to make broth — I use the boxed, organic kind, lifted from the shelves at the expensive market, one box, then two, and then three. It tastes better, I reason, than the too-watery broth of an already cooked-down chicken. The carcass no longer of any value, I discard it directly into the trash bin outside, lest the dogs get into it. My son asks, is this the wishbone, pointing at the greasy bone. Yes, I say. Yes, it's the wishbone.

     Come here, my father calls. It's ready. It's dried out and now we can wish. I rush over to the windowsill. I've been studying the wishbone for days, wondering when the time would be now, when it would be ready. Choose your side, he instructs, a small smile playing on his lips. I must wish against him, because only one of us can win — there are no ties in a wishbone pull. What did he wish for? This is me, asking now, twenty years later, sitting in my own kitchen. But at the time, I didn't even consider it. I was too greedy to win. I close my eyes. I pull, hard. I wish. I lose.

     There is the wishbone. It sits on my windowsill. I am the one counseling patience, explaining that the bone needs to dry out before we can pull. Still my children ask— that is, when they think to ask — when can we wish? But there is boredom, a sense of ennui, in their voices. I know that wishing is not as imperative to them as it was to me. That's a good thing, I remind myself. But for me, it's still important. It's a gift not to be squandered. What will I wish for? The choices arrayed before me, all of them good — my children happy, my work satisfying, new opportunities for my husband in his already fulfilling job. And protection, that small voice whispers. Protection against the bad.

     Which child should I invite to make a wish -- to pull against me? My daughter? She's seventeen, a swimmer, and no doubt she'll be wishing for a best time in her next race. My son? He's fifteen, a second stringer on his hockey team, and his wish will likely be for glory on the rink — one goal, two goals, maybe even a hat trick.

     The end, when it comes, is quiet. It's the sound of a respirator's whoosh, of oxygen being pumped into my father's chest through a tube taped around his mouth. His chest rises and falls, but it's not a natural rise — his chest is too puffed out, like a chicken laid in a roasting pan. When the nurses disconnect the machines, I stand by his bedside and watch as his chest caves in, impossibly convex. I see how the fluid accumulates, distending his hands and his face, and reminding me of that chicken, of how the plump drumsticks pulled away from the carcass, the skin almost translucent around the joint.

     After he was buried, I returned to my childhood home. My first thought, as I stood in the kitchen, was of all those wishbone pulls my father had won. None of them had saved him. For years after, I forsook the wishbone. I'd roast the chicken, carve it, and then throw out the carcass with the wishbone still intact.

     At some point though, I began to once again wrest the wishbone free and place it "It's only recently that I've taken the wishbone in hand again and asked myself: what's the harm in wishing?" on my windowsill to dry. But the wishbone was a curiosity, no better than a relic in a museum, and I'd wind up throwing it out, unbroken. It's only recently that I've taken the
wishbone in hand again and asked myself: what's the harm in wishing?

     My children are skeptical. But when it comes time, they each pull hard. Both want to win because they're headstrong and a little egotistical, not necessarily because they believe. By all rights, they should win — they're taller and stronger than me. But I am more determined. I am thinking about what lies ahead. I pull, hard. I wish. I win.   

     Now I wonder what my father wished for all those years ago. I always assumed that his wish was the same as mine — to hold on, for another year, another week, another day. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe we had different wishes then.

     I think my father and I have the same wish now, though. When I pull the wishbone free, and dry it on the windowsill, and call my daughter and son to come and pull, I'm not thinking of myself. I'm thinking of them. My father probably wasn't thinking of himself, either. So maybe his wish did come true, after all. Because here I am, all these years later. I've had a good life, filled with the joy that comes from being loved. This is the real magic of the wishbone: that we think that our wishes are powerful enough to protect those we love. And that we're willing to surrender rationality and control — if only for a moment — to something as fragile as a wishbone.

published in Snapdragon Journal, Fall 2015

Suzanne Samuels is currently at work revising her historical novel, The Orphans' Wheel, set in Sicily and New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. Her work has appeared in Cyclamens and Swords, Cactifur, Life in Ten Minutes, Swimming World Magazine, Mother s Always Write, and the Daily News of Open Water Swimming.

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