Magical Thinking

14 minute read.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Grandma called to tell Wendy’s family a surgeon needed to cut off Grandpoppy’s blue foot. The blue foot is sick. A doctor needs to cut it off to help Grandpoppy get better, I told six-year-old Wendy. I showed her how it would work. I twisted off my right foot, dangled it like smelly laundry, and dropped in the kitchen trashcan. Wendy’s eyes widened and she almost laughed. She reached out to touch my newly sprouted, pink foot.

Wendy’s dad looked over, distracted and wrapping the phone cord around his fingers while he listened to Grandma. Imaginary friends can twist off body parts and grow new ones fast, I told Wendy. It’s not the same for grandparents.

I’m not really an imaginary friend, but that’s what I tell Wendy. That’s how we can get away with her talking to me and not alerting her parents to paranormal activity. They don’t believe in ghosts: that’s why parents can’t see me. Kids don’t question paranormal activity. It just is. Though I’m the ghost who comes with the house, I can go wherever Wendy goes. Some souls in the afterlife have a little more leeway. I don’t know who makes the rules—it’s more vague than I expected, after all that Jesus talk from my mother and wearing stiff clothing to Sunday school, and definitely more fun. I died when I was young enough to still feel like a kid, and old enough that’s the form I wanted to take in this liminal place I inhabit.

Adults these days are usually in a hurry but Wendy and I slow them down to appreciate things. They miss the wonder of small things when they forget to explore the world enough with children. If they don’t, the future becomes a scary place for everyone. I offer Wendy questions to create wonder. Questions about the colors of flowers. Why the dog down the street is smaller than her cousin’s dog. How the curves and ridges on a seashell reminds her of wavy potato chips but they don’t taste the same. I want her to understand the world where I once lived fully and help adults see the world again through her.

Wendy studied her own feet. “Mackie, feet turn blue if I step in paint or draw on my toenails with markers. Grandpoppy can wash off the blue. He just stepped in paint.”

I shook my head. Grandma is saying the sick is inside his foot. He can’t wash it off. Sometimes sick feet turn blue.

Wendy’s dad asked when the foot-cutting would happen, paused, then said yes, he’d pray. Grandma’s faraway voice answered in amens through the phone receiver. He covered it, and rolled his eyes at Wendy’s mom, a frequent gesture when Grandma called.

He leaned his lanky frame over the counter, frustrated. “Marina, we can’t go.” His wife looked up from the kitchen sink. “I can’t even go with what we’ve saved this week. Last-minute plane tickets are too expensive.”

“I know, Jay. I’m sorry,” Wendy’s mom threw up her soapy hands, looking genuinely disappointed. She scratched her large belly before continuing to wash dishes from lunch.

Wendy’s dad uncovered the phone receiver. “Ma, I… I know. It’s happening fast. I can’t make it out now. I’ll fly out after to help you at home, if Marina’s mom can come here to make sure we got the birth covered…”

Wendy and I agreed last night her mom embodied a grumpy version of the Kool-Aid Man. She was mad (and maybe a little impressed) when Wendy had released ten fireflies in her closet, to see them sparkle like little nightlights. Today, her mom looked like the Kool-Aid Man with swollen strawberry legs, her pregnant belly and purple tent dress a dead ringer for the character. Wendy looks forward to Kool-Aid commercials on Saturday mornings where he crashes through walls, promising cold drinks. I’d imitated Mommy-as-the-Kool-Aid-Man and yelled Oh yeah! in her voice to make Wendy laugh. Not all ghosts are morose. Wendy is much more interesting than the bitter, sad apparitions I’ve met elsewhere. They sit around, bored, as if on a summer day that’s too hot to do anything, eventually wandering off to some otherworldly
space to sulk. I’d much rather have fun.

Wendy pulled her A to Z Science! book off the kitchen table when her dad hung up the phone. Her parents spoke in a huddled conference. No, not enough time to fly back, her dad said. Wendy and I moved to the living room. She plopped into the beanbag and opened the book, mimicking the script from her father’s past reading, judging by the drawings on each page.

“Every person has art-eees—is that right?—and veins. They carry blood in the body away from and to the lungs and heart,” she said in a sing-song voice. The baby could be early, her mom offered. “We need oxygen for breathing and for blood.” Visit, after the surgery, her dad said.

“What do you think, Mackie?” Wendy whispered, glancing in the direction of her parents. I pointed to the book, Keep reading, and poked my finger into her navel.


Her dad walked into the living room and rubbed the brown stubble on his face, giving Wendy a worried, surprised smile. “Hey, Duckling.” His white t-shirt had grease stains from working on their Ford’s radiator flush earlier that afternoon. He had hummed while he worked over the car, strains of the local radio station hiccupping through the garage. Later, with Wendy laughing and trying to get her tired mom to dance, her dad strummed a vivid air guitar (an errant monkey wrench) and sang (off key) to “My Sharona,” changing the lyrics to “My Marina” before heading in for iced tea and the incoming phone call.

Wendy looked back at the pages of her book. Her parents weren’t as happy as they were singing to the radio earlier. Wendy’s mom, almost nine months pregnant, waddled away from clinking dishes in the kitchen sink and shuffled to the powder room. Wendy smiled when her father sat down in their favorite maroon lounge chair. Wiggling the parquet wooden slats of the living room floor became an abacus counting the minutes waiting for him to scoop her up. He needs to think for a little bit, I told her. He’s worried about Grandpoppy.

I knew this was normal, her dad’s contemplation and worry. How I wanted to tell him, Jay, it’s okay. Everything will be okay. Grandpoppy is one of the fun ones, and still pretty spry. Jay leaned over to turn on the black-and-white TV, clicking the knob away from UHF snow to Channel 2. Wendy clicked the loose pieces of the wood and watched him. The TV showed a commercial for the Close Encounters of the Third Kind movie showing in Hayward nearby. The weird alien music from the trailer sounded like some nervous heartbeat. This type of music usually makes Wendy scared to go to sleep at night and I have to tell her stories about puppies to help her forget. Her dad showed no reaction to the TV activity except for a tightening of his jaw.

“Is Grandpoppy okay?” Wendy continued to click the loose floorboards.

“Duckling, why don’t you go out and play.” Her dad cocked his head over to her without taking his eyes off the screen.

“But it’s cold outside, Daddy.” It had rained off and on all week; people had walked dogs in the morning wearing jackets. The Northern California east bay sun hadn’t burned off the clouds as usual and instead left the sky draped in yellow-gray for two days. Come on, I said. Check the window.

Her dad looked through me and gave her an encouraging grin. “It’s summer. Just cooler than usual. What about collecting some new rocks?” he said, and turned back to the screen, smile disappearing.

Wendy’s dad loved to watch TV when he came home from work and after days of tinkering on his old cars. Wendy would sometimes watch the shows with him, like The Dukes of Hazzard or shows about animals on Nova.

Wendy and I traipsed to the dining room and she squeaked the windowpane’s glass with her hand. It had been warmed from a smear of late afternoon sun. Her kindergarten teacher Miss Donaldson felt windowpanes often, testing for weather she said, before the kids ran outside for recess.


We spent all seasons outside, so I knew Wendy really wasn’t concerned about weather. “Wendy dear, my favorite five-year-old,” her grandfather had said last summer when we visited Maine. “Come and sit close.” Wendy and I had just come inside from collecting ladybugs in an old peanut butter jar, the sun hiding behind clouds all day.

Grandpoppy was a retired Baptist minister, so all he seemed to want to do was pray and talk about how he prayed for lots of people in Africa and China. He did things like urge Wendy to collect soup can labels to help buy food and Bibles for people in other countries. When Wendy asked why we didn’t do this for people in California who were hungry and who looked just like people in Africa or China, he made a comment about the church being “civilized here.” She told Grandpoppy she thought pieces of paper ripped off cans was a weird way to talk about church and about Jesus who never ate canned soup with his bread.

Summers in Maine often felt like springtime. He had patted the musty tweed couch cushion next to him, calling Wendy over. Lobster, pine, and blueberry paraphernalia hung from the room’s walls like some jacked-up gift shop during tourist season. He had the same look he did the year before when they visited for Christmas, a smirk, red veins spiderwebbed over his wide nose. “Grandpoppy, I need to help Grandma with cookies.”

“One quick prayer, angel, then you can go.” He clasped her hands in his and pulled her to him. “Close your eyes.” Grandpoppy seemed to be praying more and more since he wasn’t able to mow the lawn anymore. He said he had “old bones.”

A stale cinnamon scent enveloped us, like an apple pie doused with a musky aftershave. Grandpoppy pressed Wendy closer and she attempted to lean away when brimstone rose in his voice. Why is he so loud? I asked her, and she shrugged. She liked rubbing his bristly chin and listen to the peeper frogs outside, not listening to his prayers. I silently counted to ten, then did it again three more times before he was done.

“Amen,” he said with a click of his dentures, opening his eyes with a smile. Wendy gave him a hug, and squirmed away to the kitchen.

Grandma washed mixing bowls in the sink and directed Wendy to the table for warm peanut butter cookies. Cookie crumbs hanging from the corners of her mouth, Wendy whispered to me, “I like when Grandpoppy and me can find blueberries and go ice fishing but not when he yells about Jesus.”

I answered, It’s something to do with Jesus being dead but not really. I recalled going to church as a young man and what Wendy shared from her Sunday school classes. Being dead hadn’t helped me understand constructs of religion. But I now understand why faith creates hope in the living, like bird gliding through a windy valley, knowing there’s eventually somewhere to land. People get excited about magic things but call them “miracles.” I told Wendy. Magic is like how you’re excited about turning into a cat on your eighth birthday.

Wendy leaned over and took large bite of cookie. “I don’t think I can be a cat. Mama told me cats don’t eat peanut butter.”


Wendy’s mom chopped vegetables in the kitchen near the now-quiet phone. I walked around on the ceiling between the living room and dining room, batting at the cobwebs. Wendy’s dad zoned out over the TV and I flicked the cobwebs onto his head, trying to get a reaction. Wendy left five greasy fingerprints on the warm dining room window. “Mackie, we need to find something outside. You need to help me. Come down and let’s go.” Wendy’s dad looked up and frowned, then rubbed his eyes and turned back to the TV.


Wendy picked a dead firefly out of her cardigan pocket and slid on her rain boots. She scooped up her rock box with a small plastic bowl, and we headed out the back door near the kitchen past the pantry of 58 cans of Hunt’s tomatoes. Her dad worked at the Hunt Brothers Cannery in Hayward, bringing home at least a dozen cans of tomatoes each week. If I couldn’t answer her questions, she’d bring them to him, because he seemed to know everything. He reminded her about the ridged pupa of the cecropia moth they found in their front yard shaped like a tiny Egyptian mummy. The shrill spring peepers of coastal Maine in early summers when he was a kid. Sparkly salamanders cuddled into corners of the garage and hollowed trees.

He’d say to go get some books at the library to learn more when Wendy asked more and more questions. This month, Wendy told me Mama didn’t have time to take her because of the baby growing inside her. Her mom preferred to watch soap operas and drink lemonade with her feet on the coffee table in the afternoons after Wendy’s school day. Her parents got into a few fights about that, her dad claiming that if her mom was paying more attention to Wendy, she wouldn’t be relying on an imaginary friend for a playmate. It wasn’t normal, he told his wife and Wendy. As supportive as her dad was of magic, Wendy didn’t understand why he didn’t see my magic or think it was normal. But then again, I’ve seen adults lose the ability to see such wonder. There’s wonder in connection beyond boundaries of what’s expected. Life gets tied up in knots, and for some fearful people, death comes before love can cross these boundaries.


We could tell her mom was grumpier this month. First, her dad brought up Wendy’s “weird” imaginary friend thing again, that it didn’t matter Marina was pregnant and tired, she needed to pay attention to her daughter more. That ended in her mom crying and her dad saying sorry after he drank two beers. Her mom remained testier after that, frowning at breakfast and moaning every time she got up from a chair.

“Mama said I had rats in my hair,” Wendy had told me last week. What she actually had said was Wendy had messy hair with what Mama called a “rat’s nest” anytime she tried to brush Wendy’s black hair smooth. When a mean boy at school named Drew pulled her hair, she told him to back off because the rats in her hair would bite him. Then Drew pushed her and told Wendy her mom looked like a Mexican like it was a bad thing. Wendy didn’t know what to say. Her mom was irritated with Wendy’s report about Drew that night and told her to tell that boy she was Sicilian. Now whenever we’re in school on a nice day, we hope Drew is sick and stays home, so we can have more fun outside at recess.

Wendy tumbled around the brook behind the house when her father brought her for the first time last year. The brook hid behind a cluster of cottonwood and oak, a thin thread of water that eventually made its way to the bay. The trickle provided enough moisture for water life but was shallow and calm enough a five-year-old wouldn’t drown. Wendy called it “Mackie’s river,” because she knew it was one of my favorite places.

Mud flowed up around my toes the closer we got to the rumpled brook banks. Wendy struggled with the thick mud around her boots. Wendy’s rock box usually carried digging tools and her pebble collection. We celebrated if she found a geode or fool’s gold. Bringing the plastic bowl was a new addition.

“We need to look now, like how Daddy told me.” She walked along the bank near the water reeds. Wendy moved to an area at the water’s margins and turned over some rocks. A centipede and four pillbugs scurried away from the light, three of which Wendy put into the rock

Wendy wended her way through more rockery. “We got to find trees with holes.” Wendy reached for my hand to lead me. “I need to get water in the plastic bowl.”

She pulled some gleaming green moss from the ground and placed it over the rocks in her box. Wet leaf litter. Decay of the forest floor. A handful of soil.

What are you looking for? I squeezed water from the moss. Is this a pupa day?

Wendy hummed and swept away the long stems of fox tails with her arms. I hung upside down by my knees from the willow and mimicked the croaks of nearby bullfrogs. She stopped at the mossy tree hollow at the bank’s edge. Something shiny and brown curved around the bark. A salamander’s tail. With one fell swoop, Wendy grabbed it.

That thing looks like an ugly grandpa toe, I said, jumping off the willow branch.

“It feels like hard Jello,” she said. Wet. Cold. Brown. Its blunt toes splayed, like a baby’s hand outstretched, protruding eyes like river-wet stones. It twisted its silver speckled body into a slippery S. Into the box it went and Wendy shut it with a snap.

She raked sharp-smelling soil with her fingers and a Kentucky Fried Chicken spork, the grit stuck under her nails. Worms squirmed near the surface. The knees of Wendy’s jeans and sleeves of her cardigan browned in the mud. She carefully placed her worms and tools into the box away from the salamander. She stood up looking at me with a wide grin and splotch of mud on her right cheek.


“Daddy, what do salamanders eat besides worms?” Wendy and I had walked back into the living room with her box tucked under her arm, looking for her father. Tomato and oregano odors filled the air, sharpened with her parents’ anxious hum in the next room. Her mother walked in from the kitchen, her face pinched. “Wen, don’t bother Daddy right now. He’s on the phone with Grandma again.”

Almost nightly in the lounge chair, her father would unspool fantastic worlds to Wendy. I’d sit in the corner listening to him in similar wonder, feeling all warm inside like Wendy pillowed by his paunch. Her mom took over the role if her dad drank beer and slurred his words, when he cursed at the Giants failing to follow his personal playbook. Wendy and I preferred her dad telling stories over her mom because he was more fun.

He sometimes liked to cozy up with a science book before bedtime. “‘Salamanders have a special ability to regrow legs, tail, intestine, and part of the eye.’” I remember Wendy sat mesmerized learning about the formation of a blastema, a clot of cells with special information to tell the amputated site to grow back into bones, muscles, the stringy parts of nerves, and skin. I thought this was better than peanut butter cookies or picking wild blueberries with Grandpoppy. Colorful illustrations with glittery ink showed a yellow-spotted salamander, a clean cut of a foot away from a cartoon leg. On the next picture, a fleshy bud bloomed into an identical limb. Over and over. Magical. “It’s called ‘regeneration,” her dad had finished and paused.

Her dad stared into a middle distance and said “Articulus.”

Wendy asked him what he meant. He paused before redirecting his gaze to his hands. “It means ‘a joint,’ like a knee or ankle. Grandpoppy had a neighbor with bike shop named ‘Articulus’ when I was a kid. He liked to fix old motorcycles and hang out with other guys who fixed things. Never rode ‘em though. Grandpoppy doesn’t work on bikes anymore.” His eyes got a little wet after he said this. Wendy touched her dad’s cheek.

That snapped him out of his thoughts. “Animals are so interesting, aren’t they?” he started. A playful glint flickered in his eyes. “I wish I could grow extra arms then I could be a centipede and do this—” and started tickling her then fell into a hugging competition that he won by a nose before Wendy had to go to bed. I wiggled around them like a centipede laughing, popping more legs from the sides of my body. That made Wendy want to hug me, too.

“Probably the leg? God.” Wendy’s dad brought me out of my reverie. Tinny garble leaked from the handset and he ran his fingers through his thick hair. “No, Ma. I was prayin’. God Almighty. Amen.” The blue foot now too far gone, they wanted the leg instead. But the leg is so long, Wendy mouthed to me. Is it blue too?

“Oh, your clothes are dirty.” Her mother frowned and flicked her long, black braid behind her shoulder. “Your hands.” She grabbed Wendy’s arm and led her to the bathroom.

“I took my boots off, Mama.”

“Yes, you did. But you need a bath right now.” Wendy’s mom had become more irritable with her mess this week, putting away toys and books when Wendy was barely done using them.

“You look like a big grape.” I laughed and thought of Fruit of a Loom underwear and the Kool-Aid Man. Her mom grumbled at her comment and lifted Wendy’s shirt over her head.

Wendy missed most of her mother’s tut-tutting while she played. When can we see the salamander? I danced around the bathroom, impatient. Wendy soaked the washcloth and slapped it onto her chest. Her mom took the fingernail brush to her dirt-caked nails. The salamander’s box waited next to the boots, ready for our examination.

“Mama, is house water the same as river water for animals?” She’d forgotten to fill the plastic bowl with the water outside.

Her mom scrubbed Wendy’s arms with a washcloth. “No, honey. It’s different. It doesn’t count for a bath when you’re covered with mud.” She gave Wendy a wink, thinking she understood why Wendy had asked the question. No, Wendy, I told her. It’s different water.

Wendy allowed herself to be bathed, her rat’s nest brushed free by her mother’s quick hand. Her mother grunted with every position change, her protruding belly hanging like a large basketball between her legs. She attempted to bend over sitting on a stool to soap Wendy’s back and almost tipped over.

“Hon, Grandpoppy’s really sick.” Her eyes softened and she stopped lathering the washcloth.

“I know, Mama. He’ll get better.”

Her mom half smiled and she rinsed soap from the washcloth into the gray bathwater.

“Don’t worry. His leg will be okay.” Wendy touched her mother’s cheek with a soapy hand.

“Duckling, you are a dear one,” she said and kissed Wendy’s wet forehead.

Her mom finished rinsing Wendy’s hair and wrapped her in a rose-scented towel. “Go get your PJs on. We’ll have dinner soon. Ricotta-stuffed pasta shells.” She dried Wendy’s hair and gave her squeeze. “Root beer floats if you eat well.” Oh, yay! I gave Wendy a thumb’s up.

After root beer, toothbrushing, sneaking the salamander box into her room, and being tucked in, Wendy quietly flicked on her bedside lamp. She angled the box on the floor under the lamplight and opened the lid. The salamander lay half-hidden in the leaves, minute twitches of breathing at the curves of its belly. And, its spots glittered. “Mackie, it’s magic!” Wendy gasped. I could see it, better than a geode or fool’s gold. Maybe even better than twisting my foot off and sprouting a new one.

What about the water?

“It’s ok, I think. Salamanders are magic so maybe this one is more magic and okay without water.”

She nudged the salamander to the flattened yellowed leaves of the box. A thought crossed her face. Wendy pushed her finger and thumb onto the salamander’s blunt head and body between a string of pearly spots, pressure with her index finger and thumb. Legs flailed trying to break free. She grabbed the Kentucky Fried Chicken spork and angled it over the front, right leg.

That spork and Wendy’s focused sawing over a cottonwood leaf cut right through that leg.

Wendy, what are you doing? The leg quivered. Wendy did not answer. The salamander swiveled its head ever so slightly to us. Its leg lay crumpled in blood jelly, toes still twitching.

“Is that blood?” Wendy dipped another finger into the goo. What a strange odor, salamander blood, like fresh-cut grass, dying leaves, and snot.

She started on the next leg.

“This will work,” she muttered.

She continued, cutting the remaining legs from the salamander’s body. This: articulus. Regeneration and faith. Her faith across a valley of possibilities.

“Mackie! Where are the new legs?” Wendy nudged me while we stared into the box. I shook my head, and her brow furrowed.

Wendy sprinkled the severed limbs and unmoving salamander with the torn leaves. Its skin had lost its sheen and sparkle, oily fingerprints on its head and back, blood smeared across cardboard. The worms wriggled in the pile of dirt and rocks. Check in the morning, I said. Wendy pushed the box under her bed and said “I just want Grandpoppy to get better so Daddy isn’t so sad. Then we can read books together again.” I tucked her in and waited for her sweet, slow breathing before I wandered the house.

The house sleeps waiting for the wisp of almost dawn. Her mom moans when turning in bed. Her dad turns to stretch on his back, moving his body away from his restless pregnant wife. His foot reaches to touch hers and I reach to tickle both. They squirm and move closer together.

Wendy is curled under a comforter of rainbows, dreaming. I watch these dreams, like a zoetrope in my mind, some magical screen to a world between life and death. I’ve never been able to do this with anyone else except Wendy. She is my magic. I see her grandfather with eight legs, a drooling pink spider snapping rubbery claws and shouting Amen! in a raspy voice. Wendy holds bright gold salamanders spotted with pillbugs in her hand. The salamanders’ legs are missing and replaced with bloody nubs. Spider Grandpoppy’s feet paw at her, then his legs fall off in a heap, like a pile of shoestring potatoes. Jesus sits nearby shrugging his shoulders drinking a root beer float. Wendy sleeps and watches in nightmare horror what she has done to her grandfather. What’s happening to all of the legs?!

The phone’s ring startles the adults awake. Pressured speech from her parents’ bedroom pushes Wendy from dreams and I start to lose the picture. The dream salamanders become translucent like broken glass in her hands, transforming into brook water puddles. Her parents’ talking is muffled like the springtime snow of Maine covering the hills, chilling people to their bones, turning feet blue. A sob. More. Leg amputated. Above the knee. Infection. Jesus couldn’t save him. Someone hangs up the phone. Minutes later, a loud moan, a gasp, from Wendy’s mom.
A quick close of the bathroom door. She’s calling for her husband to get a her a clean nightgown, a towel, her bag. Everything is happening all at once.

Wendy hears her parents up early and rolls out of bed. I shake my head. She pulls the box from under the bed and opens it on her rainbow comforter, hoping I am wrong. The salamander is dry and cold with papery skin that lifts up with Wendy’s touch. She peels away her finger, a piece of salamander flesh hanging from it like a broken blister. Still no legs protrude from the stumps. The salamander’s tail is scabbed and stuck to the rocks. Wendy smears the skin on the side of the box and shoves it back under the bed. At the window, the first shapes of morning turn the gray blur of Wendy’s room to milky tangerine. She turns to me, tears in her eyes. “How can I help Grandpoppy?”

Sweet girl, let’s look for small wonders again today. Grandpoppy doesn’t need any more help. You didn’t do anything wrong. You did everything right. Your dad is feeling grief and… joy.

“What’s ‘grief’?”

Something you feel when a person’s body is gone. Sometimes, it can be heavy like stones in a river. Sometimes, it’s like sand scraping your insides. Sometimes, it’s like a butterfly. Share stories about your Grandpoppy with your dad. Be a connection. Hug your dad so very tightly, with every joint in your body.

“Why ‘joy’?”

Before I can answer, Wendy’s dad appears in the doorway with slumped shoulders and purple rings under his eyes. “Duckling,” his voice cracking. “I have some news.”

He steps in closer. “You’re gonna be a big sister today.”

Wendy runs to her dad and hugs him as hard as she can.

Elisabeth Preston-Hsu

Find Elisabeth Preston-Hsu's work in the Bellevue Literary Review, Chicago Quarterly, CALYX, North American Review, McQueen's Quinterly, and elsewhere. She's a physician in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Follow her on Instagram @writers.eatery.

Find Elisabeth Preston-Hsu's work in the Bellevue Literary Review, Chicago Quarterly, CALYX, North American Review, McQueen's Quinterly, and elsewhere. She's a physician in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Follow her on Instagram @writers.eatery.

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