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The Fourth Wish: Chapter 16 - Questions

“Every problem has its own solution,” Mrs. Seraphina said softly.

“Yeah,” mumbled Melanie, “but every time we try to solve a problem, we just make it worse.”

“You have to make sure you’re working on the right problem before you can find the solution.”

Mrs Seraphina nudges Melanie towards the best use of a magical wish.

If this is your first encounter with Elizabeth Varadan's wonderful story for children of all ages, you're in for a memorable treat. All the earlier chapters of the novel are in our archives. To read them click on The Fourth Wish in the menu on this page - and experience the best kind of fictional magic.

“Lovely day, don’t you think?” Mrs. Seraphina’s words seemed to hover in the air. “A bit brisk, but we’ll have beautiful daffodils later on. Did you know they need cold spells to blossom?” Her thick white brows lifted, as though she expected a response to that.

Melanie found her voice. “My mom likes daffodils.” She racked her brain for something else to add. “We usually get bunches of them in the spring at the flower stands under the W-X Freeway.”

“Nothing like a splash of yellow to warm the heart!” Mrs. Seraphina patted the bench beside her. “Have a seat.”

But Melanie found herself reluctant to do so. What if Mrs. Seraphina knew she had been plotting with Arthur yesterday to turn one wish into three? Would that upset her? Worse—what if Mrs. Seraphina had simply shown up to say there were no more wishes? Maybe Arthur was wrong. In fairy tales there were only three.

“I should get home.” Melanie fidgeted the toe of one shoe against the other. “Cory’s sick. I should probably go make him some juice or something.”

“That’s nice of you. And where are Erin and Arthur?”

For a moment Melanie regarded Mrs. Seraphina’s webby, wrinkled face without answering, embarrassed by her bad temper earlier in the morning. “Erin’s making gingerbread men with Mrs. Sloan,” she mumbled. “Arthur’s probably still….”

“Gingerbread!” cried Mrs. Seraphina. “I love gingerbread.”

“So do I.” Without even thinking about it, Melanie sat beside her. “We make gingerbread men every year for Christmas Eve.”

“I love those little traditions.” Mrs. Seraphina sighed. “In my family it was krickle cookies. I still make them. Nostalgia, you could say. It’s nice when some parts of your life stay the same no matter what else is happening.”

Melanie sent her a sidelong glance. Krickle cookies? It was easier to picture the woman lighting a candle in a jack-o-lantern than baking any kind of cookies. But what were krickle cookies? Mrs. Seraphina gazed serenely ahead, as if the tall plane tree across the path had her complete attention. Two squirrels chattered shrilly and skittered up the multi-colored patches of bark, while Melanie wondered what to say.

“Are you all finished with your Christmas shopping?” she finally asked.

“Yes, that was the last of my shopping when you all helped me Saturday.”

“Those were Christmas presents?” Melanie tried not to goggle. It was hard to imagine who might receive the star-sprinkled cloth or the wand that had made such wonderful rainbows on the wet sidewalk Saturday. She wondered if Mrs. Seraphina ever used a wand. But no, she seemed to use her walking stick for everything, even telling time. Melanie took a quick peek, but the stick’s handle was covered by the woman’s hand.

“Including the boxes,” continued Mrs. Seraphina. “I have the fourth box here.” She drew out a small orange container from her cape pocket like the ones she had given earlier to Cory and Melanie and Erin.

Melanie’s mind whirled. If the boxes were presents, the wishes must be too. Hadn’t Mrs. Seraphina said the boxes were for wishes to come home to? She puckered her brow. If there were a fourth box, there must be a fourth wish.

She remembered her manners then. “Thank you for the boxes,” she told Mrs. Seraphina. "They’re very pretty. I’m using mine for a coin bank,” she added, although the idea had only occurred to her this minute. In the excitement of decorating the tree and learning Pete’s plight, and the explosion of crullers and her father’s letter, she hadn’t thought about the box at all, once she had set it next to Erin’s on the dresser.

Why, she wondered now, had Mrs. Seraphina chosen them for the boxes and wishes? Kindnesses were rewarded, she had told them, Saturday. But picking up a spilled bag seemed a very small kindness, as far as Melanie could see.

Still, if they did have a fourth wish coming, this was the time to get as much advice as possible. She cleared her throat. “Mrs. Seraphina, could I ask you a couple of questions?”

“Of course.” The woman put the box back into her pocket, fixing her gaze on Melanie. Under that intent look, Melanie faltered. All her questions seemed to run together.

There was so much she wondered about, now that she had the chance to ask. Would they ever get Pete’s magic fixed? Why did every wish keep messing up? Where had all the crullers come from? Where had all the bunnies gone? Why was it so hard to find Mrs. Seraphina when they looked for her? Why hadn’t Mrs. Seraphina stopped to talk to them at the mall yesterday? Why was she here at the park today? Who was Mrs. Seraphina? Questions flew through Melanie’s mind like a flock of sparrows and were gone before she could ask them.

Instead, she heard herself saying, “Why are the wishes so different each time. What I mean is….” Melanie searched for words. “Like, at the magic show Saturday? We’re the only ones who remember Pete could read minds and make people float? And see all those rabbits come out of his hat? Jenny saw…something different.”

“Isn’t that how things usually are?” asked Mrs. Seraphina. “Take any event—someone walking down the street, or a magician onstage pulling a rabbit from his hat—ask twenty people what they saw, and you’ll get twenty different stories.” Melanie felt almost hypnotized by the rise and fall of Mrs. Seraphina’s shimmery voice.

“You know that’s not what I mean,” she insisted.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, what about Daisy? All those crullers….”

“Five ka-billion, I believe," said Mrs. Seraphina.

“Even Mrs. Sloan remembers seeing that on TV.”

“I should hope so. It was a memorable event.”

“So was Mondo’s show, but Jenny doesn’t remember it.”

Mrs. Seraphina gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “We remember what’s important to us.”

“It was important to Pete. It even got him fired. Well,” Melanie added, remembering how Mrs. Seraphina had stopped Pete from chasing them Saturday, “I know you made Pete forget, but….”

“Pete has more than one problem to solve,” said Mrs. Seraphina. “Sometimes it’s good to forget one problem while you work on another. Otherwise you’d wear yourself out trying to handle everything at once.”

Melanie stared at the ground in exasperation. This conversation is wearing me out, she felt like saying, although—she wriggled a toe against the concrete pad under the park bench—she’d never dare.

“Every problem has its own solution,” Mrs. Seraphina said softly.

“Yeah,” mumbled Melanie, “but every time we try to solve a problem, we just make it worse.”

“You have to make sure you’re working on the right problem before you can find the solution.”

Melanie had the feeling Mrs. Seraphina was talking about more than Pete’s magic. “I’m just trying to understand....”

“A good beginning for most things….”

“I’m just trying to understand why the magic was different for each wish,” Melanie insisted.

A smile stretched across Mrs. Seraphina’s face. “Every situation needs a different kind of magic.”

Melanie shook her head, bewildered. "Why does every wish turn out so badly, then?"

“They’ve turned out fine. You have to learn how to wish, you know. I think you’ve all learned quite a bit.”

Melanie folded her arms and stared back up the path where she’d been walking just moments earlier, feeling so pleased. If only Mrs. Seraphina would just say things in a nice, normal way, instead of sounding like a fortune cookie. How could the wishes have turned out fine when Pete was fired from the job he wanted and couldn’t do any magic and hated driving a cab? And what did Mrs. Seraphina mean they’d all learned quite a bit? Who were the wishes for?

“What I mean is,” Melanie tried again; she looked at the plane tree across the path so that Mrs. Seraphina couldn’t fuddle her brain with those piercing eyes and that sly smile. “Will Pete ever remember what happened Saturday? And, like, will Daisy and Mr. Jackson always think there was a ghost?” She threw her hands up in frustration. “How do we know what to wish for, anyway?”

There. That was the heart of it. That was the real question she had wanted to ask. Relieved, Melanie turned to Mrs. Seraphina.

But Mrs. Seraphina was gone.

© Elizabeth Varadan 2006

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