The Things We Wish For
by Ernest Slyman


The candles were lit by his father. He was always lighting things. The candles flickered on the ceiling little pictures of moons that spun around. It was Tom's birthday, and the cake loomed beneath his chin. He seemed weightless at such moments. He felt as though he was rising upward. He closed his eyes and he blew the candles out.

"Birthday boy!" cheered the room full of such wild people. He'd never seen his father so cheerful. His mother grasped hold of a chair and with her other arm lifted high -- she swung it in an extravagant gesture. The family usually quiet, reverent on Sundays, let out with a roar that was delightful.

"He's thinking about it."

"Does he know what to do?"


"Blow, birthday boy! Put your lips together and blow!"

"He's got no idea. Isn't that cute."

Tom observed his father showing him how to blow. A sudden gust of wind swept through the house. Tom estimated the wind was coming from outside. But on careful examination his father was the source. The man's eyes bugged out and his brow furrowed and there was that whoosh. A mystical sound that sprang from his round lips. "Hasn't got a clue?" Tom studied the behavior of his family and surmised by all the purposeful directions what must occur. He was to lean forward close to the cake and stare into the candles. The heat of the flame on his cheeks. "Make a wish! Be a blowfish!" "Nah, don't spit on the cake. It's isn't polite."

Years later he would recall their chiding, advice that was strange, off its mark perhaps. But reflected a tenderness. The concern of loved ones addressing the need for a child to wish for what it was in life he needed most. Whatever that imaginary thing might be. What moved one to yearn for that one thing which would please him like nothing else:

"Think! Be careful what you wish for! Birthday boy!"

"Might come true! It can happen to you."

"Close your eyes! No peeking!"

And so Tom was off on that imaginary sojourn. From birthday to birthday it was his responsibility to make a wish for himself. It seemed a large responsibility at first. The whole world seemed to depend on the outcome of his wish. His family studied him carefully, a terrifying moment, so poignant Tom closing his eyes and puffing the candles out. And how was that humans could blow out candles with their eyes closed. What supernatural act was this? Odd that down through the years Tom remained faithful to his wish. Each time around he wished for one thing. Each year it occurred to him. And so over and over he closed his eyes and blew the candles out.

Tom never told anyone what he wished for. There was the promise of keeping secret one's wish and in compensation for keeping mum the wish would come true. Loose lips sink ships. He closed his lips and never let it out. Though there came a time a boy named Bobby Faye jumped him and threatened to beat it out of him. Tom was eleven and not about to tell anyone. No matter how much it hurt.

There was his sister Kate who asked what he wished for. What sort of wishes do boys make? What is it they want more than anything? She chided him to tell her. He would be the most perfect brother in the whole world if he would tell her what he'd wished for.

"I can't."

"Not ever?"

"No. There's no point of asking."

"I hate people who keep secrets."

"So do I."

"Then please tell me."

"It wouldn't be proper."

He was fearful of her guessing it. "I wish for what everyone wishes for," Tom said.

"Not everyone wishes for the same thing."

"How do you know?"

"I know . . . I've asked around. People wish for different things. Fame, fortune, power and love. Lots of people wish for love," Tom's sister said.

"I can't tell you."

"Birthday boy!"

"You must tell me."

Tom's eyebrows sprang upward. He stared at his sister. She was a kind girl. She had never raised her voice to him. She had such tenderness in her. The words that she spoke with such an angry voice hurt him. He could feel a bruise on his arm. "I don't believe you have the right."

"I'm your sister."

"True," Tom said.

"I'm your blood relative."

"I can't deny that."

"We have the same parents."


"We live in the same house," she said, politely, as though arguing her case before a judge and jury.

Tom turned his back. He walked slowly through the house. The hallway was long and he heard footsteps behind him. Suddenly he sprang around the corner. Tom ran to his room and locked the door. He heard his sister's voice on the other side.

"Lots of people make wishes for the strangest things. Bald men wish for hair. Short men wish to grow tall. Ugly men want to be handsome. Women with big noses wish for little noses. There are as many wishes as they are people making wishes."

"For me, there's only one I wish," said Tom.

"Which one is that?"

"I can't tell you."

He heard a whack. His sister kicked the door. She called him a coward, a rotten child who had no table manners. It was odd she would worry so about something so ordinary. Over the years it was point of comical relief between them. "What is it that you wished for?" she would inquire. Sometimes he stayed purposefully out of sight. She followed him everywhere. For months she kept her vigil and asked him repeatedly, but he told her nothing. She would ask him each year what he wished for and the battle would continue. He never told her. He wished each year for the same thing. It was the same wish. He told her that. He told that very plainly. There was no doubt about it. Each year he yearned for the same thing. And he closed his eyes and blew out the candles and solemnly wished for the same wish.

* * *

"What do you wish for on your birthday . . . ?"

It was a question that sometimes came up in his adult life. A sort of ice breaker. Other folks played the same game. It was a rather simple way of conversing with one another at parties or passing the time with one's own family. The question was on the lips of people who meant little harm. They didn't know what they were asking. Tom had always wished the same wish.

"I wish for what everyone wishes for," Tom said.

"What's that?"

He had hid the answer from his sister. He had kept it to himself. So when Tom's wife asked him the same question, he was naturally suspicious.

"Did my sister put you up to this?"

"No!" his wife said.

"She has been after me for years to tell her what I wish for on my birthday."

"Has she?"


"It's a harmless question."

"True," Tom said.

"If you don't want to tell me, you don't have to."


Tom was hesitant. He didn't want to tell anyone. He had kept his secret so long it seemed natural to keep it to himself. Why should he gab about it now? He watched as his wife stood up from her seat and walked into the other room. Tom saw in her face a hint of disappointment. Her footsteps were soft, a sort of clacking like an ax striking a tree. He felt himself cracking. He felt odd.

Tom ran to tell her what he wished for.