The Little Genius

I was considered a very smart child. In fact, at the age of two I proclaimed “Én vagyok a kis okos!” (I’m a little genius.} After I learned the Hungarian alphabet I taught myself to read. In the first grade I quickly learned English, both spoken and written, and began to devour every book in sight. The uptown library became my second home.

I also liked to draw. But while teachers and classmates praised my sketches, I felt insecure about my efforts. There was always someone better. I wanted lessons, but I never asked for them. Besides, my parents couldn’t afford them, anyway.

School didn’t appeal to me. Most of the material we studied in the elementary grades was easy and therefore boring. In addition, I was socially inept and didn’t understand the niceties of conversation. I was most at home with a book. In class I rarely paid attention to the teacher, but the work was easy enough that I could keep up when it came time to take a test. Although I didn’t like math, computational arithmetic was easy enough, especially if it didn’t require verbal problem solving.

But music. Ah, music! A complete conundrum to me. Reading letters was so easy. Why didn’t these notes make sense to me? I had a good ear and easily learned melodies and harmonies, but sight reading was a mystery I have never solved. I could understand timing, I just couldn’t figure out how you could tell which note on the staff corresponded to a sound. Did it mean a specific sound? How do I know what sound? The note could be any sound as long as the arrangement of notes around it were the same, right? I guess that’s what’s known as the key? I could see how the notes went up or down, but if I hadn’t heard the music I could never tell you what the note represented. And why have a separate bass staff? Did it read the same?

Why didn’t the world of musical notation open to me like reading had? Reading words had been instinctive. Reading music was a nightmare. It required a type of thinking I didn’t possess. Even though I could read books way above my grade level, I considered myself stupid because I couldn’t understand musical notation.

Perhaps it would have been easier if I had learned to play an instrument. But money was tight in our household, and my brother, who showed aptitude on our old player piano, was the one who was given lessons.

To this day I can’t interpret sheet music, and it makes me sad. Fortunately, it didn’t stop me from singing in choirs, in school and beyond. So far, no one has required sight reading as a requisite for participation.

If that day ever comes, I guess I’ll have to publicly acknowledge my musical illiteracy and admit that I can be smart in some things, but not everything.

All you Need is Love

For the first time since I started playing pickleball, someone yelled at me for not playing well enough. We were partnered and I could tell that after the first couple of serves he gritted his teeth and grew quiet. I found it strange that he didn’t even bother to return the serves. After the game (which we lost, of course) he began to berate me for hitting the ball too high and making it too easy for the opposing team to slam it into our court. “You’re killing your partner,” he said in a wave of frustration. I found the wording of his tirade interesting, as his amorphous second person usage made it seem that he was speaking for the whole group. Did everyone who played with me feel that way?

I felt devastated. I had gotten up with a bad sinus headache, but thought playing pickleball would help. I didn’t play my best, but I was by no means terrible. Maybe I did return the ball a bit too high that day. Everybody makes mistakes, even the most seasoned. A gentle reminder would have been enough.

I slunk away and sat down at the far end of the row of chairs, pondering my transgressions and thinking about leaving, when Debbie, a young, experienced player, came up to me and said “Come on, Liz. Let’s play together.” She told me she would coach me throughout the game. How to hold my racket, when to run up to the net after a serve was returned, how to bend down and hit upward so my returns would be low and harder to hit. “Just watch me, and do what I do,” she said. She reminded me that it was just a game and winning wasn’t everything.

I don’t even remember who we played, or if we won. But I felt like a winner. There were several seasoned players with whom she could have partnered for that time slot, but she picked me to play with. She didn’t try to slow down her game on my account, but encouraged me to step up mine. Her encouragement eased my nervousness.

I went home feeling enormously better. I still had that headache, but it was manageable. I realized that the first person I played with might not have been feeling well, and his anger wasn’t necessarily directed at me personally, but I was still shaken.

On the other hand, Debbie’s reaction to seeing my distress was personal. It showed how a simple act of kindness pours light and love into a situation, and transforms pain into joy.

Where Does All the Matter Go?

What happens when you lose weight? You get smaller, right?

But where does the lost stuff go? You go on a diet and you weigh yourself regularly. One day you notice you’re a few pounds lighter. Once there was a part of you and then it’s gone. Does it dissolve into the ether? Does it metamorphose into something else? According to the law of conservation of matter, it doesn’t dissipate. So it has to be somewhere. How can it be matter and then not-matter?

Does it sneak out at night and glom onto another hapless human being who wakes up one morning and notices there are a few extra pounds on the scale?

Does it make you less than you are? More importantly, will it come back?

It’s a conundrum.

I think I’ll go and consume some antimatter.

How Long Have I Got?

Is it better to know ahead of time that your days are numbered, at least within a certain time frame? Even if that time frame stretches into years? Or is it better to be totally unaware and die, say, in an accident? What happens, happens.

Okay, so I carry that ticking clock inside me that tells me my days are numbered. I’ve got cancer. Not your everyday, run-of-the-mill cancer, but a truly odd type of cancer about which little is known. This creates a certain amount of tension and turmoil in my life. I could die within a year, or I could be at Stage Four for the next 20 years. As a fellow cancer colleague (I don’t like the designation of either survivor or victim) once said, “You’re more likely to die with it than from it.”

I don’t find that particularly comforting. I belong to a Facebook support group, and there have been several deaths in the past year. This stupid cancer, known as medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) is capricious. You can be fine for a while. For a long time, even. But then one day you aren’t.

But I don’t want to bore you with the details. They’ll come up periodically, but I don’t want to launch into a philippic about the vagaries of this mysterious ailment.

So how long have I got?

This MTC has been my dance partner for about two years now. Aside from the anguish I experienced from the assault on my neck from two surgeries, I’m not in pain. I exercise. I enjoy my friends and family.

But I get tired a lot. I need a fair amount of sleep. Afternoons don’t go so well. I have my limitations, and if you want to ask me to do anything that involves movement, call me in the morning.

Nevertheless, I don’t look sick, certainly not like the gaunt, hollow-eyed sufferers I used to see in medical books and magazines. In fact, to my great consternation I gained weight after my thyroid was removed. I don’t require chemotherapy or radiation, because MTC doesn’t respond to them, anyway (Let the weird fun facts begin).

So how long have I got?

When I first got my diagnosis I felt numb. Time slowed down and I saw everything in slo-mo. Then that passed and I got up the next morning and had my coffee and toast. You can’t stay down all the time. You tell a few people (because I don’t like broadcasting my situation to a bunch of people, not even to the Facebook support group) and then you’re done with that. You give people updates when they ask.

I took up playing pickle ball right after Christmas. I love the fact that my body can learn new ways of moving, and that I can consciously will myself to return the ball over the net. And no matter how cold and gray the day, or how tired I feel, pickle ball drives negative thoughts out of my mind because there’s no room for feeling weepy when you’ve got a responsibility to back up your partner. Or when you’re volleying back and forth and you realize you’ve returned the ball a dozen times.

But this isn’t about pickle ball. Not directly, anyway. I’ll come back to it periodically, because it’s completely amazing to me that after more than 60 years of feeling like I never truly incarnated into my body, I’m now learning how to own it. Pickle ball and cancer just don’t get along.

So how long have I got?

MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH PICKLEBALL

Exercise is always a good thing, right? I know that movement strengthens not only our bones and muscles, but helps enliven our thinking. I was very active as a child, trying to keep up with two older brothers. But all too soon there came a time when my mother insisted I learn the domestic arts, and vigorous outdoor activity became an occasional thing. As I cleaned and cooked and ironed and did laundry I became distanced from my body. I didn’t use it well. But now that I’m in the twilight of my time on earth, I feel the urge to move, to use my muscles, to become more at ease within the confines of my skin.

Enter Pickleball….

 

There’s no better time for self-improvement than at the first of the year. The holidays are over and we think about becoming more organized. About doing the things we like to put off so we can get more done. And we can get more done by being more fit.

Nothing gets people worked up like the mention of exercise. Should I go to a gym? Get a personal trainer? Walk or run on the treadmill? While sipping my favorite hot beverage in my PJs I visualize a more svelte physique, one I haven’t seen since . . .

No, wait. No need to get carried away. I’ll just dust off the elliptical and do a daily half-hour workout. Just a half hour. That’s attainable, isn’t it? And I don’t have to kill myself to do it. After all, the TV ads for a popular treadmill/elliptical machine promises dramatic results with a three-days per week regimen. With a moderate amount of effort I’ll soon be getting into clothes I hadn’t worn in years.

Who am I kidding? I hate exercise. I especially hate the elliptical, but the treadmill comes in a close second, followed by free weights. I hate going to a gym where all I see are wall-to-wall hardbodies. Besides, where would I find the time?

Then one morning I see an item in the church bulletin. Exercise class, 8:00 to 9:00 a.m. Exercising with a buddy strengthens commitment, right? I decide to give it a try.

There are a couple of women there. The coordinator says, shall we begin? One of the ladies reaches inside a cabinet and hauls out about a dozen workout videos. Most are VHS tapes, but there are a few DVDs. Take your pick, she says. We pick a tape with a lovely young thing on the cover, pull up a chair and a mat, and start in. By the end of the class I’m huffing and puffing and inwardly cursing the enthusiastic twenty-something blonde in red spandex whose overly cheerful encouragement makes me want to slap her.

At the next session I’m told Wednesdays are dedicated to Richard Simmons. We put his video into the player and start grooving to the oldies. I like that he has people of all shapes and sizes on his videotape, and I do enjoy the music, but I confess his enthusiasm grates on my nerves. Besides, I have two left feet, and struggle to keep up with the moves. And there are so many moves.

I continue to attend the exercise sessions, which by now are down to two people, me and the lady who started them. We chat often and at length prior to class, which cuts down our exercise time, but the conversation is pleasant and neither of us wants to break the ambience.  Quite frankly, our commitment has waned somewhat. Neither of us is anxious to start exercising. I like Richard Simmons, but I’ve begun to grow tired of “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “The Locomotion.”

And as to the other videos? The moves are more complicated, raising rather than lowering my frustration level. I feel stupid flailing my arms and hopping up and down in endless repetition, always in  a direction opposite to the the people on the videotape. I feel embarrassed when people walk by and say hello, smiling at our efforts.

Oh, and did I mention I hated aerobics?

I had been seeing people in exercise gear coming down the hallway and going to the gym attached to the church. I ask my exercise companion what that’s all about, and she tells me “Pickleball.” What’s that? I ask. It’s kind of like tennis, only with paddles instead of rackets, she says.

One morning, after yet another lackadaisical exercise routine, she invites me to join the pickleball players. I feel a little intimidated, but walk into the gym anyway. I see people volleying what looks to be a whiffle ball across a net, using oversized ping-pong paddles. I’m smitten.

A person with a warm smile invites us to join them, and for the next hour or so I find myself batting plastic balls with holes, using a paddle, playing on a court slightly smaller than a tennis court. Never mind that my stout wooden paddle seems to have as many holes as the ball, given how often I swing and miss. I’m quick to point out that I’ve never played tennis or racquetball, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Everyone encourages me as I try to connect with the ball.

Pickleball is great exercise, especially when you miss a lot and have to chase balls all over the court. But I don’t even think of it as exercise, because it’s way too much fun. It’s almost like cheating the Exercise God.

But then I think: Can’t they see how uncoordinated I am? Don’t they realize I was one of those kids who was always picked last in team sports? I’m not especially coordinated, and I’m certainly not competitive.

Surprisingly, that doesn’t seem to make a difference. I cast about for disapproving looks, but my radar doesn’t pick up negative vibes. These people don’t seem to be bothered that most of the time, whenever anyone teams up with me, my weak backhand and wild swings don’t score many points.

What is it about a modified tennis court, a paddle, and a bag full of plastic balls? I remember having enjoyed badminton when I was a kid, but it didn’t take hold of me the way pickleball has. I love the way the ball sails over the net, the effort of going after a well-aimed lob, the feeling of satisfaction when you connect with the ball and hit it over the net, and it comes back to you, and you hit it again. It’s like dancing.

And then I realize it. It’s not the court or equipment. It’s those encouraging words that have me hooked. What is so special about pickleball players? What mysterious substance have they discovered that inspires such kindness? My clumsy playing doesn’t go unnoticed, but no one glares at me for missing a return shot. I hear “nice try” when I swing and miss, and “great shot” when the other team fails to connect with the ball I’ve landed in their court. I’m inwardly thrilled, but outwardly speechless. Growing up, I never heard words of encouragement. I feel awkward saying them. They feel strange on my tongue.

But it’s not too late. I’m learning how to say them now, because I’m part of something that stretches not only my body, but my spirit. I understand there will be times when someone’s exasperation with my clumsiness will be thinly disguised. But disappointment doesn’t define me. It means I keep trying. It means I keep showing up. It means I keep learning that words and gestures can lift up or put down. Winning and losing aren’t the standards I live by. Achievement is important, but equally important is opening up, is being vulnerable, is encouraging your fellow players.

Oh, and getting some exercise in the process.

Standing in the Doorway

When you get a cancer diagnosis, you start to think about the things you wished you didn’t have to think about, like what happens to you when you die. Or what it’s like to die. And you discover who truly cares about you. And then you realize that you can finally let go and release fear, because every day that you wake up is a good day.

 

I stand in the doorway, on the threshold of a luminous spring day, watching a paradise of birds  swarm the feeder. The slanting light tells me it’s nearing sunset, but it’s still bright enough to see the iridescent cardinals, finches and woodpeckers feeding in the sunlight. I watch my husband round the corner on his lawn tractor, a knight if there ever was one, on a steed of fire and smoke, master of this world of birds and burgeoning flowers.

It is perfect, all of it, and all of it is fleeting. I can no more hold on to this picture than I can grasp a handful of water. We’re told to seize the day. Be mindful. Live life to the fullest. As I stand in the fading sunlight with all this beauty before me, I don’t know how much more I can be, how much more I can hold.

Can fullness be measured? Can it be more than it is? Is there any way I can make this last? Stop time and imprint the image on my heart? Is it possible to remain in this state of being forever? And most importantly, continue to be who I am in the process?

What will happen when I die? Will I enter a world parallel to this one? Will I remember these birds, this sunset, my husband, the children and grandchildren I love? The worst thing that could happen would be to cross the threshold and stop being me, with all my memories and experiences. How did this journey begin, and how will it play out in the theater of my soul?

I turn and go back into the house. The luminous moment dissolves. There is a meal to be prepared. A floor to be swept. As I chop vegetables, my attention wanders to the mundane.

The world quit being safe when I learned I had a cluster of cells that were behaving badly, growing where they shouldn’t. Profligate cells multiplying their way around the isthmus between head and chest, holding my thyroid hostage until the only logical defense was taking it out.

It was then I first heard the word cancer, spoken in hushed tones. Not just any cancer, but a particularly rare one, not treatable by conventional means. I learned it would be my dance partner for life, as there is no cure. Its manifestation would sometimes be courtly, sometimes rapacious. Its name was medullary.

My new reality plunged me into a maelstrom of denial. Cancer? I barred the door and held the word at bay. Too late. It was already inside.

Those who have cancer are often referred to as warriors. But I am no conquering heroine standing in a battlefield with the shards of cancer lying vanquished at my feet.  I’m definitely not combative. I avoid conflict at all cost.  Am I a warrior? Where’s the battle? What am I fighting?

And whether I’m brave or cowardly, I still have cancer.

I find others online who have also received invitations to this medullary dance. Some, like me, have no symptoms other than relentless fatigue, while others are engaged in a constant struggle with a more aggressive cancer that devours internal organs like Pacman’s ghosts.

I feel overwhelmed and isolated. To begin with, I’m new to this support group and haven’t had any long term contact with anyone. Other than cancer, we don’t have shared experiences. Were it not for this St. Vitus’ dance, we would not have met. How many times and in how many ways can I recite my fears? How many ways can I offer comfort to others whom I feel need more than I can give in the way of encouragement, especially when my own world is still so newly minted?

It’s an immutable journey on a road with steep curves and no shoulders.

And while my fellow meddies comprise a voluble partnership of cancer survivors through shared experiences, offering advice, insight and helpful information, I discover that family and friends are largely silent. I want to tell them, “This is what I’m going through. I don’t understand much of what’s going on, but I’ll tell you what I know. Or I can steer you towards further information, if you want.”

Amazingly, they don’t want. Whenever I try to explain something to a friend or family member—such as why I’m tired all the time, or why surgery is often the only option for this type of cancer—the words bounce off a wall of silence. I’m puzzled. And hurt. Do they think my cancer is contagious? Does my demeanor suggest the kind of whiney self-pity that needs containment?

I begin to feel guilty. Had I been such a bad parent and spouse that my family should ignore me? Years earlier I had suffered depression and spent time in a hospital, which had required being away from family, both physically and emotionally, for an extended period. Were my children damaged by my absence and now must sanction me for my chaotic parenting?

Ironically, I’d thought then that I wanted to die. But something inside wouldn’t let go. Something that said, give it a chance. I might not have been the best parent or friend, but I did the best I could at the time, and when the chips were down what I had to offer was faith. Faith that there was something bigger than this narrow world I had created, faith that even when all seemed hopeless I had to trust otherwise.

And so it came to be that despite the bleak landscape in my soul, I climbed up and out of that black hole and emerged fully among the living. Was my legacy of triumph over self-destruction now overshadowed by this new threat of death?

I push irrational thoughts aside. First, death is inevitable. If not cancer, something else will take me. We all pray to die peacefully in our sleep, but life offers different scenarios. I’d like some insight into what lies ahead, come to terms with what it means to live in a world that I feel interpenetrates this one. How do I stay awake after I’ve crossed the threshold?

Because I believe that family and friends care about me, I resist the temptation to feel sorry for myself. Perhaps they’ve just discovered the elephant in the room, and it’s threatening. Best to not look. Hadn’t I always been the strong one? Hadn’t I gone through life taking care of the needs of others? Hadn’t I been the one who never asked for help because I saw it as a sign of weakness? Because I’m not displaying the usual cancer symptoms that come with radiation and chemotherapy, I appear to be healthy. Must I continue the exhausting role of being strong?

Years ago I was with my father as he lay dying. While he was able to speak he told me he knew it was his time, and he was at peace. Then he recited a story about when I was a little girl gathering eggs, clutching the basket to my chest and declaring that there were many more eggs in the hen house, but this was all I could carry.

My heart seized up. I held his hand and waited for more. I wanted words of wisdom, a final insight into how he’d managed to embrace life despite all the hardships he had endured, not some silly story from the past. But these were his last words.

Not long ago my son came to visit with his twin five-year-old boys. The kids played outside in the early spring weather while I watched from the sidelines. They were so full of life, so exuberant. Then one of the little guys came up to me and said, “Grandma, are you alright?” I assured him I was. When they were getting ready to leave, my usually reserved son said he was going to give me another hug before he left. And he did.

And then I knew.

Not all language is spoken. We don’t always hear what we expect to hear. Why should I assume my father or my son would communicate differently? My father’s last words were an act of love. He preferred acting to speaking, and his story was a pictorial farewell. Its power would sustain me after he was gone. My five-year-old grandson knew what words to say, and his compassion opened my soul. My son’s extra hug was his way of telling me he loved me, and I am still warmed by this gesture.

So when I need to talk about the problems I face with unsympathetic doctors, or tell someone I’m hurting today, or if I need a question answered, I consult with my meddie friends, who are always there for me with a ready answer, because they know what I’m going through. I am awed and thankful for their unflagging support.

I find myself looking beyond my own self-consciousness. I understand that even on my worst days I’m loved, and I don’t need to carry this burden alone. Accepting love from others also allows me to be less rigid and more gentle with myself.

Having medullary as a dance partner comes with an agenda. I never ask, “Why me?” Because in some deep part of my being I know I have extended the invitation.

What, then, am I supposed to learn? What do I need to know? Perhaps it’s that no matter what comes to me from the future, I’ll embrace it without being overwhelmed.

Being mindful isn’t being in a perpetual state of bliss. It’s making hundreds of little choices throughout the day, every day, so I can be present. Little moments are as great as extravagant ones. I’m learning to open my heart and make time to enjoy something. When a friend asks me to go somewhere, the sweeping can wait.  The takeaway here is to prioritize what’s essential and what is not.

I can’t conquer cancer. But I can live with it. I can say yes to everything. Yes to anxiety, and yes to love and peace. I can trust that I’m given everything I need for all the life I have.

In the end, I can nudge the cancer and tell it to move over. We’re in this together, for the long haul. The enemy is not cancer.

It’s fear.

The Warrior of the Seven Questions

A couple of years ago I started writing stories for my granddaughter, Maggie Belle. I’ve turned it into a Christmas tradition. Here’s the latest.

 

Once upon a time Miss Maggie Belle took a walk in the woods. It was a wintry day, and there were clouds in the sky that blocked out the sun, but the woods were lovely. It was very still, with only an occasional scurrying chipmunk or rabbit to break the silence.

It was beginning to snow. Large, fluffy flakes brushed the trees and settled on branches and bushes. Maggie looked up as the snowflakes floated downward and downward, until they touched her eyelashes and cheeks. They were so soft. She opened her mouth to catch a few of the flakes, feeling them melt as soon as they touched her tongue. She breathed in the cold wintry air. Everything was so quiet. Everything was beautiful.

“Hello, you’re standing on my hat,” said a very tiny voice.

Maggie was so surprised she jumped backward and landed in a pile of leaves. She sat up, brushed herself off, and looked around. “Who said that?”

“I said it,” said the faraway voice. Maggie looked down and saw a tiny little man dressed in a blue shirt, green pants and brown boots. He sat on a mushroom and picked up a crumpled red hat. “It’s alright,” he said, more to himself than to Maggie. “It’ll be good as new.” He brushed and straightened the hat and put it on his head. Then he looked up. “Pleased to meet you, even if you did step on my hat,” he said. He stuck out a tiny hand. “My name is Hal.”

“Pleased to meet you, Hal,” Maggie said. She took his hand carefully between her thumb and forefinger and shook it ever so lightly. “I didn’t mean to step on your hat. I just didn’t see it.”

“It is red, you know,” Hal said. “Kind of hard to miss.”

“Yes, but I was looking up, not down,” Maggie explained.

“No matter. Fell off my head, it did. Everything is fine,” Hal answered with a smile.

“Do you live around here? Are there more like you?” Maggie asked.

“Sure do. Sure are,” Hal said.

“Who are you and what do you do?” Maggie asked.

“I’m a gnome,” Hal explained. “We take care of the earth, the soils and the rocks. We especially love crystals.” He pointed to a geode on the ground. It was large and round with pink crystals on the sides, and it was hollow in the middle.

“That’s very pretty,” Maggie said. “May I touch it?”

The gnome stepped aside and Maggie bent over and picked up the geode. She turned it over in her hand. It was about the size of half a grapefruit.

Hal pulled himself up to his full height, which wasn’t much, only about six inches. “We make sure the crystals and all the minerals in the earth are in the right balance. We rub and polish them and help them grow.”

“That must keep you very busy,” Maggie said.

“Oh, it does, it does,” stated the gnome. “We work hard. But we play hard, too. When we’re finished with our work we celebrate in the meadow. The lady gnomes cook wonderful meals and we love to dance and sing.”

“Where is everyone else?” Maggie said, putting the geode down.

Hal’s face turned sad. “I don’t know. This morning I went to work underground, and when I came home no one was there. My wife was missing. My children were missing. My neighbors were missing.”

“Where do you think they went?” Maggie asked.

“Well,” Hal began, scratching his head. “There was talk about a monster in the woods, a dragon, but I didn’t believe it. They said he wanted to capture all of us and make us his slaves.”

“Oh, no!” Maggie exclaimed. She felt very sad for the lonely little man who stood there trying to look brave.

Just then they heard leaves rustling, followed by a large crashing sound. A voice roared through the woods. “I’m hungry. I want some gnomes for dinner.”

“Quick!” whispered Hal, running toward a tree a few feet away. “Come with me!” Maggie hurried over to the tree, which had a door big enough for her to squeeze through. Hal dashed inside and Maggie bent over and followed him. When she got inside she saw that the room was rather large, and she could stand up, although her head touched the ceiling. There were little beds with curtains in front, and tables and cupboards along the wall. There was a little stove in the corner with a steaming tea kettle. The floor was neatly swept. It looked so cozy that Maggie expected someone to come out from behind one of the curtains and offer her a cup of tea.

“Welcome to my home,” Hal said. “Actually, it’s my wife’s and children’s home and my parents’ home and my grandparents’ home. I was expecting to come home to a nice supper and play with the children before going to bed. But they are all gone.”

“Is the dragon going to eat them?” Maggie asked.

“Oh, he’d like to, but he can’t see them.”

“Why not?” Maggie wanted to know.

“Well, he captured all the people in the village except me. I was very deep underground and he didn’t know I was there. He took all the men and women he could find. Which was everybody but me. He rounded them up and took them to his castle, where he was going to make the women and children work for him. He was going to eat the men. But he couldn’t.”

“Why not?” Maggie asked.

“Because some of the woodland fairies saw what happened and helped us. They couldn’t fight the dragon and free us from the castle, but they could work a magic spell and make everyone invisible. Which is what they did. And now the dragon is angry because his house is dirty and there’s no one to clean it, and he’s hungry but can’t find anyone to eat. He’s too lazy and stupid to find food in the forest.”

“Well, it serves him right,” Maggie said angrily.

“I can’t stay by myself forever,” Hal said sadly. “Someone has to rescue the people of the village so we can go back to taking care of each other and the earth.”

“How are you going to do that?” Maggie asked.

“Me? I’m not going to try at all. There’s only one of me, and I’m too small. There’s no way I can overcome that giant monster and save my family and my people.” Hal removed his hat and wiped his brow. “You’re not all that big for a human, either. You must be a child. You are definitely too small to slay the dragon.”

“Even if I was a grown-up I’d still be too small to take on a giant dragon, Maggie said.

“There is a way, you know,” Hal said.

“What way? What do you mean?” Maggie asked.

“There is a way you can help us. As I said, the dragon is stupid and lazy. But he knows the secret of the Seven Questions. We gnomes aren’t real strong in the brains department, either. I’ve been thinking and thinking, but I can’t come up with anything, much less seven things. But the fairies tell me that if you can give the answer to the Seven Questions, he has to let the gnomes go home.”

“I don’t know about any Seven Questions,” Maggie said. “There are lots of questions in the world. How am I going to narrow it down to just seven answers to the dragon’s Seven Questions? And even if I do manage to figure it all out, how will we know when the gnomes are home if they’re invisible?”

“When the Seven Questions have been answered, the spell is broken and everyone becomes visible again.” Hal smiled. “See? It’s easy.”

“Easy for you because you’re not the one who’s supposed to know the answers,” Maggie said, stamping her foot. “Why can’t the fairies go visit the dragon and answer his questions?”

Hal rubbed his chin. “The dragon can’t see very well, and the fairies are like little puffs of smoke. He can barely hear or see them. It has to be someone bigger. Like a human child. Like you.”

“But I don’t want to go into a dangerous dragon’s castle, and try to guess the answer to his questions. I don’t think I’ll be able to figure them out, and then when he sees that I can’t he’ll blow fire and roast me and eat me up. No, thanks,” Maggie said.

“But don’t you see? You’re our only hope. If you don’t try, all the gnomes will be lost. If they stay invisible too long they’ll die. And because I can’t take care of the earth’s minerals all by myself, the crust will crack and there will be terrible earthquakes and volcanoes and it will be very bad for you humans.”

“Well, gosh, you make it sound so pleasant,” Maggie said. She thought for a moment. “I’ve never tried to match wits with a dragon before, so you’ll have to excuse me if I seem a bit scared.”

“You’ll be safe as long as you answer each question. One question a day. He can’t touch you after he asks the question, and if you answer correctly he has to let you go until the next day. If you answer all the questions correctly he has to let everyone go, including you.”

“Wait. There’s a chance he could capture me and lock me up and make me work for him? Or eat me?” Maggie shivered.

“You will do well. The fairies will help you, and there are other creatures of the forest who will know some of the answers. I pray you will do this for us. For all of us. For all the earth.”

“Okay,” Maggie said. “What do I do first?”

Hal explained that she had to go to the castle and call out to the dragon. When he came out she had to tell him that she was the Warrior of the Seven Questions. This was the first day and he had to ask her the first question. She would be given three guesses, and if she answered correctly he could not touch her for 24 hours. She was to go home and come back on the second day. If she answered incorrectly the dragon would lock her in the dungeon and fatten her up until she was nice and plump and ready to eat.

“But first we will have a meal and rest. You can see the dragon first thing in the morning,” Hal said, getting up from the table. Maggie wished she was safe at home with her parents and her brothers. But the gnomes needed her help, and she was willing to help because she wanted the gnomes to be safe, and all the earth to be safe. She ate the tiny bowl of porridge the gnome offered her and made a little bed on the floor. She was still a little hungry, but she knew that a human sized meal would be much too difficult for a gnome to cook. She fell asleep and dreamed there were fairies dancing around her, chattering about questions and answers.

*  *  *

“Hello? Is anybody home?” Maggie stood at the drawbridge of the castle with four towers. She felt small and was more than a little afraid.

“Who knocks at my door?” boomed a voice from within.

“My name is Magnolia Belle, Mr. Dragon,” Maggie said in a shaky voice. “Can I come in?”

“Why do you wish to enter the castle of the fierce and terrible Dragonius?” the creature asked.

“Um, because I’m a warrior at the door . . . I mean, I’m the Warrior of the Seven Questions,” Maggie said.

“Enter!”

Maggie walked slowly inside. She knew that the dragon couldn’t hurt her after she told him she was the Warrior of the Seven Questions, because he couldn’t touch her until he’d asked the first question, and then if her answer was correct he couldn’t touch her then, either. Not for 24 hours, anyway. But he was pretty terrifying. She hoped she’d be brave enough to stand without shaking so hard she’d fall down.

A fire-breathing dragon slid into the room. He had an enormous tail with a barb at the end, and had huge scales that smoked in the morning light. He was bright green and his eyes were yellow and red. He had enormous teeth that looked sharp as knives. He blinked his two-colored eyes and looked down at Maggie.

“You have been sent by the gnomes? You must have very sharp eyes, because for some reason they’ve disappeared and I can’t find those pesky creatures.” He peered down at the little girl standing in the sunlight. “You are indeed small for a warrior. I don’t think you will make a very large meal, but let’s get on with it, anyway. Are you brave?”

“Yes, I’m brave,” Maggie said in a strong voice. “Now ask me a question.”

“You seem to be in a hurry,” the dragon said, switching his tail back and forth. “I like to play with my food.”

“Hold on! I’m not your food yet, remember?” Maggie said. “You can’t touch me now because I told you I was the Warrior of the Seven Questions, and you can’t touch me before you ask your first question, and if I answer it correctly you can’t touch me then, either.”

“But only for the first 24 hours. You know your task well, little Warrior,” the dragon said, throwing back his head and showing his razor-sharp teeth. “Can you guess the first question?”

“You haven’t asked it yet. That’s not the way it goes, and you know it,” Maggie said. “I don’t have to know the question. Just the answer.”

Very well,” said the dragon, flicking his tail. “I’m tired of this game, anyway.” He closed his eyes and started humming to himself. He hummed and hummed until Maggie grew very restless. Was he ever going to stop? Was this his question? Was it a tune she was supposed to know?

Just when she thought she couldn’t stand it any longer, the dragon opened his eyes, lifted his head, and roared: “What are the four things that make up the earth?”

Maggie thought and thought. “Let’s see,” she said to herself. “There are rocks and trees and oceans and clouds and grass and flowers. And animals and people. And the things that people make. Does that count?”

“Let’s get on with it. You have only three guesses. What is your answer?” the dragon bellowed.

“He said there were four things, so that narrows it down,” Maggie mumbled to herself. “There are only a few things . . . a few . . . a few! A – F – E – W. She looked the dragon straight in the eye and said: “The four things that make up the earth are Air, Fire, Earth and Water.”

There was a long silence. The dragon did not come forward to snatch her up. Maggie waited and waited.

The dragon finally spoke. “Begone, child. This day you have had good fortune. Come back tomorrow morning and you may not fare so well. There are six more questions. I plan to eat you, you know.”

“I got that,” Maggie said. Then she turned around and ran out of the castle with the four towers as fast as she could. She ran to the gnome’s house. It was a long way, but it was the only safe place in the forest. She wanted to be there long before the 24 hours were up, in case the dragon decided not to play fair and come after her, anyway.

“You are here. I assume the first day went well?” Hal said when Maggie ran breathlessly into the house.

“Yes, I got the answer to the first question. But there are still six left to go,” she said. She yawned. “I need a nap, because I didn’t sleep too well last night.”

“Very well,” said Hal, laying several blankets down on the floor. “Rest and be strong for the second day.”

Maggie lay down on the soft blankets and fell fast asleep.

*  *  *

Maggie again stood at the drawbridge in front of the castle. She looked up at its four towers and wondered if anyone else lived there.

“Enter!” the dragon bellowed in his raspy voice.

Maggie went inside the large hall and watched the dragon enter from the other side of the castle.

“It’s question time,” Maggie said, trying to smile. She didn’t want the dragon to know that inside she was really quite afraid.

“Getting right to it, are we?” the dragon asked in a sly voice. “Where’s the fun in that? Wouldn’t you like a cup of tea first?” He waved a scaly paw, but there were no servants to bring him a teapot or a cup. He had eaten them. “Oh, never mind,” he said irritably. “The gnomes will come back, and then I will have my tea.” His face brightened. “ Wait, but you won’t be having tea with me. you’ll be the cookie with my tea.”

He looked Maggie straight in the eye and said, “Very well, then. I’ll give you the second question. How many disabled rodents were dismembered? What was their disability? Who dismembered them? And what body part was dismembered?”

“Wait, no fair,” Maggie responded. “That’s four questions.”

“I make the rules, I break the rules,” roared the dragon, throwing back his head and laughing, which made him hiccup and blow flames. He reached out a scaly paw and Maggie jumped backward.

“Stay right there,” she said, putting out her hand. “I can’t think when you get nasty.” She thought about rodents. What were rodents? Rodents were rats, of course. And mice. Yes, mice! How many mice? One? Two? Three? There were three, and . . . they were blind. “Three blind mice, three blind mice,” Maggie sang. “See how they run. They all ran after the farmer’s wife . . . so she’s the one who dismembered them . . . who cut off their tails. With a carving knife, by the way.” She was very pleased with herself. Things were looking pretty easy at this point. She looked up at the dragon and shouted triumphantly, “The rodents were mice, and there were three of them. Their disability was that they were blind. The farmer’s wife cut off their tails.”

The dragon became very angry. He roared and roared. He opened his jaws and huge flames shot out of his mouth. Maggie couldn’t believe what happened next. The dragon broke the rules and reached out and grabbed Maggie, who was speechless with fright.

He pinned her arms behind her back and took her down, down, down to the dungeon. He threw her into a cell and locked the door. “I’m hungry and I’m tired of waiting for my food. I’ll find one of those stupid she-gnome creatures if it’s the last thing I do, and I’ll have her bring you tasty snacks from my cupboard and you will eat them until you are plump and tender, and then I will eat you up!”

Maggie sat on the edge of the hard bed in the cell and began to cry. How was she ever going to rescue the gnomes? She had answered two of his questions correctly, and instead of freeing the gnomes she made things worse. The dragon would find a way to break the spell and make the gnomes visible, and then they’d become slaves. He would eat her up and she would never get home. Her parents would never know what happened to her. What was she going to do?

Maggie sat on the bed in the dark dungeon and cried herself to sleep.

*  *  *

“Hello, little one,” a tiny voice said.

Maggie woke up and rubbed her eyes. “Who’s there?” she asked.

“My name is Lilya,” said the tiny voice. “I am a fairy, and I have come to rescue you.”

Maggie looked all around the cell. Near the door she saw a tiny creature with wings. The little creature flew about the room.

“Will you help me get back home to my family?” Maggie asked.

“Alas, I cannot do that, but I can help you defeat the dragon.”

“How are you going to do that? He doesn’t play fair. He wasn’t supposed to touch me if I got the answer right, but I got it right and he did, anyway, and here I am. Why don’t you just answer the questions yourself and let me go home?”

The fairy flew close to Maggie so she could look into her eyes. “Alas, little one, we do not understand his questions, because we don’t understand his world. The gnomes are simply not clever enough to answer, for they live only partially in the world above ground. However, the dragon world and the human world are similar, so his questions are not too difficult for you. After all, you’ve correctly answered two of them already.”

“”More like five,” Maggie mumbled. “His second question wasn’t just one question. It was four.”

“But how do I get out of here?” she continued. “And if you’re able to get me out of here, how will I be safe from that awful dragon before I can answer the rest of his questions?”

“I will cast another magic spell,” Lilya said. “I will put an invisible shield around you that the dragon will not be able to break. It will last through the next questions. But it will work only as long as you can answer the questions correctly. If you give a wrong answer the shield will melt and the dragon will be able to touch you. If that happens, I suggest you run very fast.”

“Wow, that makes me feel great,” Maggie said, frowning. “And then what happens?”

“We will then help you get back to your family,” said the fairy.

She took out her magic wand. “Very well. Let us begin.” She flew in circles around Maggie, round and round and round, weaving a powerful invisible shield. Then she waved her wand and clusters of tiny stars flew out. They settled on the thick metal door and the lock magically opened.

“Hurry!” said the fairy. “This way!” They ran down a long hallway to another door. Lilya opened that lock as well and they ran outside.

“Where do I go now?” Maggie asked. Before the fairy could answer her question a large white unicorn appeared.

“Hello, my name is Sonata. I will take you back to the gnome’s house. Hop up.”

“We will meet again soon,” Lilya called to Maggie as she flew away.

Maggie climbed onto the unicorn’s back and they sailed through the air, above the treetops. Maggie could see the dragon’s castle and it made her shiver. Was she really going to go there again? After being locked up by a dragon who promised he wouldn’t touch her?

“I just want to go home,” she said to Sonata.

“And you shall, my child,” said the unicorn.

“I mean, I want to go home now. Can you take me there?” Maggie asked.

“Unfortunately, I am unable to pierce through my world into the world of humans,” Sonata said. “But the time is coming soon when you will be able to go home.”

Maggie sighed. Would she really be able to see her mother and father and brothers again? She hoped so. She would try to be brave until then. And besides, she was very hungry, because gnomes and dragons did not know how to cook like her mother.

*  *  *

Maggie stood quietly inside the great hall of the castle. She felt very small and very frightened.

“How did you escape from the dungeon? Did those stupid gnomes help you?” The dragon looked very angry. He swished his tail and opened his gigantic mouth and reached out with his scaly paws, but he could not break through the invisible shield that Lilya had woven around Maggie.

“None of your business,” Maggie replied. “I’m the Warrior of the Seven Questions, remember?” When she saw that the dragon could not reach her, she felt a little braver. “How about asking me another question so I can save the gnomes and go home?”

“Who told you that you could save the gnomes? They belong to me, human child.”

Maggie ignored his fiery bluster. “As if. Question Number Six, please,” she said politely.

The dragon flopped around, waving his paws and blowing fiery blasts, but he could not reach Maggie.

“You have answered only two questions,” the dragon said, narrowing his eyes. “You must answer five more.”

“Um, no, I don’t think so,” Maggie said. “The first was only one question, but the second had four parts.”

This made the dragon so angry he pounded the floor, because he knew that Maggie was right and she had to answer only two more questions, not five. There was nothing he could do about it.

“What did they put in the bed of the princess so that she was unable to sleep?”

“What princess?” Maggie said, looking puzzled.

“That is guess number one and it is not correct. you now have only two guesses left,” roared the dragon.

“No, wait. I’m thinking,” Maggie said, taking a step backward. She tapped her chin and thought about it. Why couldn’t the princess sleep? Did somebody take her pillow? Probably not. Was there something in the bed that should not have been there? Maybe. She tried to remember a story about a princess and a . . . vegetable. A carrot? A tomato? Too messy.

“A pea! It was a pea!” Maggie declared proudly.

The dragon roared and thrashed his heavy tail. He was very, very angry. He reached out and tried to grab Maggie, but try as he might he could not do it.

Maggie turned around, and as she walked out of the great hall she sang, “See you later, alligator.”

And then there was one last question.

*  *  *

On the morning of the next day Maggie pulled the handle outside the castle door and heard the bell ring inside. No one came to the door. She pulled again. Still no answer. She pushed on the door and it swung open. Maggie walked into the great hall and looked around for the dragon. The hall was empty.

“Mr. Dragonius? Are you home?” Maggie asked. From the back of the hall she heard bumping and scraping and scratching.

Walking farther into the hall, Maggie asked again, “Anybody home?” She was anxious to answer the last question, because then the gnomes would be free and she could go home at last.

She stood still and waited. After several minutes had passed, she saw the dragon coming from the back of the hall. He walked slowly, and he did not thrash his tail. There was no fire coming from his mouth.

“I’d like to answer Question Number Seven, please,” Maggie said. But when she looked more closely at the dragon, she asked, “Are you okay?”

Dragonius did not answer. A puff of cold smoke came out of his mouth and a large tear slid down his cheek.

“It’s time for the last question,” Maggie reminded him, in case he didn’t remember.

Finally the dragon spoke. “Yes, yes, the last answer.” His words were spoken in a much softer voice. In fact, Maggie could barely hear him.

“Very well,” Dragonius began. “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening? You have three tries. If you are wrong the third time I will throw you in the dungeon and eat you.”

Maggie shivered when she heard this. She didn’t know where her thoughts would take her, but she hoped it would be towards an answer, because this sounded like a hard puzzle.

“Do you have an answer, Warrior of the Seven Questions?” Dragonius asked. His voice sounded a little stronger with each word.

“I need some time to think,” Maggie told him.

“You have until the clock strikes eight,” the dragon said.

Maggie looked up. The clock in the great hall said 7:50. She had ten minutes. What kind of animal was he talking about? Goats and cats and and cows and sheep . . . all kinds of animals walked on four legs, but she’d never seen one stand up and walk on only two of those legs. Well, she did see a dog in a circus walk on his hind legs once, but it had been trained to do so. Maggie didn’t think that was the answer.

And then what about in the evening? If it did stand up and walk on two legs, and then got tired, why would it drop down and only walk on three legs? Did someone chop off the fourth leg? Like in the Three Blind Mice puzzle? No, that probably wasn’t the answer, either.

“Have you come up with an answer, human child?” the dragon prompted.

Maggie was in a hurry to get this over with, so she said, “A dog that does a circus act and then gets caught in a trap and accidentally gets his leg cut off?” It was not the correct answer, and Maggie knew it.

The dragon tilted his head back and laughed a sinister laugh. “We both know that is not the answer. You have two more tries.”

Maybe it’s not an animal, Maggie thought to herself. But then what would it be? What else had four legs to begin with? It was really hard to solve this puzzle.

Maggie felt tired. She thought about home and the people who loved her. She wished she could be there right now. She thought about her brothers when they had been babies, crawling all over the house, like they were puppies with . . . with four legs! Okay, and then when they got older they stood up and walked on two legs. So that was the second part of the puzzle. But what about the part that said three legs? Did humans grow an extra leg when they got older?

She’d never seen a person with three legs. One time she did see an old man crossing the street. He barely made it before the light turned red because he had to use a cane and couldn’t walk very fast.

Wait! Two regular legs and one helper leg. That made three. The morning time was when a person was little and crawled, the afternoon was when they got to be a kid and then a grown-up and used their two good legs, and the evening was when they got old and needed some help, with a walking stick that made a helper leg.

“It’s a person. Someone who lives in my world,” Maggie said. “The world I want to go back to.”

Dragonius opened his mouth and spat fire. He thumped his tail so hard Maggie thought it would fall off. He jumped as high as a dragon could jump (which actually isn’t that high) and came down with a huge thud.

As he threw himself and thrashed about, Maggie realized he was getting smaller. She watched as his tail grew shorter and his mouth could no longer spit fire. His scales fell off, one by one, and his eyes became rounder. He stood up straighter, and his scaly paws lengthened and smoothed out. Maggie could hardly believe her eyes. She blinked a couple of times, and after several minutes the dragon was totally gone. In the dragon’s place stood a tall man with a beard and a crown on his head.

“Hello, Warrior of the Seven Questions,” said the king, for he was a king. “You have saved the forest creatures and broken the spell an evil witch had placed upon me a hundred years ago. I was forced to be a dragon. The gnomes and the fairies and all the animals were afraid of me, for I did terrible things. The witch said that only a little warrior with yellow hair could save me, one who could answer the seven questions. You are a small warrior and have yellow hair, and you have answered these questions bravely and honestly. The gnomes are free.

Maggie watched as hundreds of little people with pointed hats came streaming into the hall, followed by a twinkling of fairies that flew in like snowflakes. “Hail, Magnolia Belle,” they shouted.

Hal came forward then. “We can go back to working with the minerals that make our earth. We will be forever grateful to you, Warrior of the Seven Questions. Will you be our queen?”

“Um, thank you very much for inviting me,” Maggie said, shaking hands all around. “I’m glad I could help, but I really need to go back to my home.”

The king told Maggie that if she ever needed anything, she should come back to the woods and stand on the spot between two large rocks and make a wish.

“I’ll do that,” Maggie said, shaking the king’s hand.

“Are you ready?” Sonata trotted in and stood beside Maggie.

“Good-bye, everyone,” she called out, and hopped on his back. “Take me home, Sonata.” They flew up into the air.

As she climbed off the back of the unicorn in front of her home between the big oak trees, she wondered, “How am I ever going to explain this to my parents?”