MONDAY: Bozeman Before the Fire, Part 1

BY FRANK T. SIKORA

This is the first part of a two-part story. Read Part 2 here. Copyright is held by the author.

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ALTHOUGH I had been aware of Emma, the cruel, intriguing, and terribly lonely White Witch of Empathy, for a number of years, I first spoke to the girl in 1963 at the Bozeman Founder’s Day picnic. Held annually at Centennial Park on the last weekend of August, the picnic offered one more chance for families to gather for an afternoon of games, food, drink and rides before summer ended, and one last chance for the local kids to inhale a breath of summer before school started.

I loved the old park. It sat on the western edge of town, nestled in a lush, green basin at more than 4,800 feet above sea level. Surrounded by the rugged and forested Tobacco Mountains to the west and the snowcapped Gallatin Mountains to the south, the park lay in an area known as the Valley of Flowers. On that day, the weather was ideal for picnicking, a comfortable 81 degrees with a light, cooling breeze drifting in from the north.

Besides Emma, a dozen other children and young adults from the Oncology Ward of Deaconess Memorial Hospital also attended the picnic. This was not unusual. Every year the hospital dragged its young patients out into the sun and into full view of the town’s more fortunate families. A cynic might have considered the hospital’s action nothing more than a publicity stunt — an opportunity to gather sympathy and to acquire new donors for its annual fundraising drive. I thought it was a good idea for the sick kids to play with the healthy children. For one afternoon they could feel normal. They could feel the wind at their back and the warmth of natural light on their shoulders.

The sick children were easy to spot among the healthy ones. They were the kids swaddled in sweatshirts, sweatpants, and gloves, while the rest of the kids wore T-shirts, shorts, and sneakers. The effects of their treatment rendered them even further; they were achingly thin, with dark eyes, and, of course, bald, which the boys hid with baseball hats donated by the University of Montana Sports Department. The girls wore colorful scarves and displayed them with fashionable pride. Emma wore neither, although she did have a sun hat, which I assumed her nurse had given her to protect her head. Yet, during the short time I had watched her, she had yet to wear it. She also refused to wear traditional clothing; instead, she wore her hospital pajamas, robe and slippers as if she was telling the world, “Yes, I’m sick. I’m ugly. If you don’t like what you see, then look away.”

I assumed she hadn’t noticed me when I approached her. I had kept myself hidden walking along the grey, star-soaked, probability corridors of the Spaces-in-Between — my home and the home for my fellow wizards, the so-called, “Agents of Manipulation.” It is in here, in the Spaces-In-Between, the world hidden within the fabric of all worlds, decisions that affect the course of human events are made.

I took residence in the Spaces-In-Between 10 years ago, after my death at the age of 85. I will live there for another 50 or 60 years, retaining during these “gifted years,” the semblance of flesh and blood and the curse of memory and emotion. Then, like all mortal creatures, I’ll expire.

I missed the world of light and its simple pleasures, such as a good meal, the touch of a friend, or a walk in the mountains, but I did not come to reconnect with my past. I came to get a closer look at this unusual young White Witch, and, perhaps, to understand the motivations behind her aberrant behaviour.

Emma sat alone on a picnic blanket at the bottom of a small hill, ignoring a gentle game of badminton going on about 40 feet behind her. The participants were a mixture of healthy and sick children, the latter watched closely by their nurses and parents from the picnic tables at the top of the hill.

During my first 30 or so minutes of observation, I watched Emma cast an all-purpose protection spell over the children attending the picnic and a general healing spell on one of the healthy children, a stocky, red-haired boy of 10, which she expertly delivered in a clear, strong voice that both completed the job but did not draw attention.

It wasn’t apparent to me why she had focused on this young boy. Though overweight, he appeared healthy. Perhaps Emma was alarmed by his occasional cough and feared he might develop pneumonia or some other congestive ailment. Most likely, she simply sensed something wrong within the child. White Witches are wonderfully perceptive — they must be for the welfare of the children in their stead: their classmates, neighbours and friends.

Sadly, their gifts are counterbalanced by a cruel susceptibility to cancer and other virulent diseases. With bitter irony, a White Witch’s healing and protection spells are virtually ineffective on themselves. Most die by their early 20s. Is this fair? No. But I don’t make the rules, I abide by them. Besides, as my mentor once said to me, “Fair ends the moment you leave the womb.”

After completing the spells, Emma smiled and sighed; a look of contentment painted her ashen face. White Witches experience a spiritual blissfulness when helping others, a small compensation for taking on the ills of the world. The lovely moment, however, passed quickly. With a crushing air of fatigue, she opened her book, a hard copy of Anna Karenina, and slowly flipped through the pages.

The girl looked as if she might expire on the spot. Her eyes were a disturbing shade of pale green with grey smudges for pupils. Black veins scorched jagged trails across her pallid cheeks. Grey, flaking skin covered her delicate hands, which looked too brittle to hold her worn, hardcover copy of Tolstoy’s classic.

I knew her cancer had recently reached Stage IV. In less than six months, it had metastasized from both her lungs to her lymph nodes and into her brain. I knew her disease intimately. It was I who had set the disease on its ravenous course.

As I moved in closer to Emma, I heard a cavernous echo within her chest. Each breath, I thought, must feel like a knife shearing through her lungs, each step just one in a long, arduous forced march. Though only 15 years old, she looked like a worn-out 40. Looking down at this living carcass, I almost felt sorry for the little White Witch.

After a few silent minutes, she began speaking in a soft voice, barely audible. It was unclear whether she was reciting from her book or engaged in a conversation with herself, which in itself would not have been unusual. White Witches tend to be solitary creatures with few friends. At first the words were indecipherable with the accents seemingly placed on the wrong syllables. Then after another minute or two had passed, I recognized the language, an obscure and probably long-dead Gaelic dialect, and then I recognized the content. It was a prayer, a prayer of forgiveness, one my mother had taught me as a child, one I had buried deep within the forgotten corners of my memory. It was a prayer for the slaughtered, the untold and uncounted that have perished at the hands of the powerful and the indifferent.

Impressive, I thought, and disconcerting. Her prayer confirmed my suspicions that she had indeed looked into my history, perhaps even ventured into my personal corridors, and that her actions — better yet, her inactions — contributed to the death of my sister’s favourite grandchild, Marie, who was also a classmate of Emma’s. It was a death Emma could have prevented, and a death, in my mind, that justified my actions.

Last December, while riding the bus to school, Marie had mentioned to a friend that she hadn’t been feeling well, had awoken that morning feeling nauseous, and had a bad headache. Her friend encouraged her to see the nurse, or at least tell one of her teachers. Marie did neither. I suspect she didn’t want to miss rehearsals. She had a part in the winter production of Annie, her favourite musical. Later in the day, she even mentioned to the same friend that she was feeling better, and appeared to be fine during rehearsal and on the bus ride home.

That same night, Marie collapsed at home. She had suffered a brain aneurism. She died two days later at Deaconess Memorial, three rooms down from where Emma would eventually take residence.

Throughout the whole day, Emma had opportunity after opportunity to intervene. She sat behind Marie on the bus and did nothing. She sat two desks behind Marie in class and did nothing. She engaged in conversation with Marie during passing periods and did nothing. She didn’t offer one token healing spell. She stood by and watched. She knew Marie was ill. She let my sister’s favourite granddaughter die, breaking the collective hearts of those who loved the girl, including me.

I had no idea why Emma would behave so abominably. It didn’t make sense. She had to have known I would take it personally; that her deplorable actions toward Marie were unacceptable and draw attention to her. A White Witch always acts in the interest of the other children. Until Emma, the probability of a White Witch behaving in direct contrast to her nature had never even been considered. Many of my associates still can’t fathom the possibility.

Even more distressing than Marie’s unnecessary death, especially to those above me, was the possibility that Emma had entered the Spaces-In-Between, a dangerous precedent. To quote one of my associates, “This job is hard enough. There are already too many variables. You think the world is screwed up now? The last thing we need is a bunch of angry White Witches meddling in our affairs.”

I didn’t disagree. Yet, this young witch still intrigued me for a number of reasons, including her remarkable resiliency to her disease and her unprecedented emergence. Her mother was neither a witch herself nor related to any known coven of White Witches: charity, chastity, kindness, forgiveness, sorrow and, of course, empathy. Her mother was just a hideously ugly, mortal woman of no discernible talent and even lesser morals who only gave up her baby for adoption after failing to sell her daughter on the black market. Emma was an anomaly, an incalculable and beyond rare statistical improbability. Ordinary women simply do not give birth to White Witches.

Emma continued her incantation for another few minutes until she stopped and looked up at the sky. A light breeze blew the remaining thin strands of her hair across her face. She did not brush them away. Instead she reached over and grabbed her hat and placed it on her head, casting her harsh, angular features in shadow. I expected her to either go back to her book or to her prayers. Rather, she posed a question: “Do you remember Dresden?”

I did not answer. I wasn’t sure whom she was speaking to. There weren’t any children or adults within listening distance. Had I slipped out of the Spaces and exposed myself? I wondered.

“Wizard, I repeat, do you remember Dresden?”

Of course I remembered Dresden. I had done my best to stop the senseless bombing of this beautiful city — one of my bitterest failures. Bombing that beautiful city was not my idea.

With a bemused sigh, she said, “Wizard, please answer. I know you heard me. I can hear you skulking around like some third-rate aberration. You might as well have approached me wearing a cowbell around your neck.”

A White Witch with a sense of humour! Now I knew this girl was special, and yes, despite her cruelty, I found her interesting. Consumed with self-righteousness, most White Witches are a joyless lot, self-important dullards incapable of appreciating a joke much less cracking one. I laughed and emerged from the Spaces-In-Between. “You know me, then,” I said. “You know my intentions?”

“Of course. I understand completely. Whom do you think my prayers were for?”

“For me?”

“Why, yes,” she said and set aside her book. She rolled back the sleeves of her hospital gown and robe, revealing bandages and dark black bruises, a result from too many needles assaulting her skin. “Why shouldn’t I pray for the creature responsible for all this? Hadn’t Jesus said to love thine enemy? Why shouldn’t I pray for the man who has set out to kill me and my child?”

“You’re pregnant?”

Emma flashed that ugly smile that still haunts me. “Not at this moment, but the last time I peeked into the Spaces-In-Between, that loveless world you call home, where you and your cronies play roulette with the futures of the those whom you confess to love, I saw an interesting array of probabilities. It seems I have many possible futures, Wizard — some you haven’t even considered, and ones you should fear.”

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  1. Pingback: TUESDAY: Bozeman Before the Fire, Part 2 |

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