Authors: Jane Yolen
The Wizard of Washington Square
and a great deal of Love
For Heidi and Adam
EEP IN THE HEART
of New York City is a tiny park called Washington Square. It is two blocks long and two blocks wide—which is why it is called a square. On one side, under hovering maple trees, are stone tables inlaid with chess boards. And every nice day in the spring, summer, and fall—and on some bad days as well—the old men of Greenwich Village come out to play.
On the other side of the Square are two tiny playgrounds. And every nice day in the spring, summer, and fall—and on some bad days as well—the children of Greenwich Village come out to play.
Midway between these two sides is a circle. And in the circle is the fountain. Around this circle in the Square, on the fountain’s low wall, young men with beards and young women with long hair sit and sun themselves and sing. They do this in all kinds of weather in the spring, summer, and fall. And in the winter, too.
And in the very middle of the fountain, although not very many people know it, lives the Wizard of Washington Square.
It is true, he has often been seen. But because he has a beard and long hair, he is sometimes mistaken for one of the young men and women of the fountain. Or, because his beard and hair are white, it is sometimes thought, by people who do not know better, that he is one of the old men who play chess. And from the back, because he is only three feet high, he is sometimes mistaken for a child.
But he is none of these things. He is a wizard. And he lives in the fountain in the circle in the middle of Washington Square.
AVID WALKED SLOWLY PAST
the chess players in Washington Square Park. He scuffed his shoes on the pavement and kicked at a fallen leaf. He tried balancing on the low wire fence between the grass and the path, but he kept falling off. Each time he fell off, he looked around, hoping someone would notice him. But the old men kept playing chess and never looked up. Then David tried walking on the grass, right by the keep off the grass sign. But the policeman on the beat had his back turned.
D. Dog, David’s Scottish terrier, raced around him in circles, nipping at his heels.
“D. Dog,” thought David unhappily, “is the only one in this whole park—in this whole city—who knows I exist. Who cares.” And, feeling very sorry for himself, which was something David could do exceptionally well, he walked slowly toward the fountain in the middle of the square.
As he walked, he pulled a rubber ball out of his back pocket. It was shiny and unused. “Because,” thought David, “I have no one to use it with—except D. Dog.” He threw it into the air with ease. His throwing arm had been appreciated in Connecticut, where David had lived until a week ago with his mother and father and three sisters. But it was definitely
appreciated in New York—at least, as far as David could prove by the number of friends he had made in a week.
“Not one,” David repeated in his thoughts, “not one person cares.” And he threw the ball to D. Dog.
D. Dog jumped into the air, snapping at the ball with his teeth, but he missed. The ball hopped, skipped, and bounced over the low retaining wall, rolled past the wading children, and ended up in the center of the fountain. It stopped there, resting against the silver sprayer.
Now D. Dog, as David knew, was a brave dog under almost any circumstance. But water was definitely one of the almosts. As might be guessed from his matted coat, D. Dog was a coward when it came to water. He just stood at the edge of the fountain and barked.
“Well, now you’ve done it,” said David angrily to D. Dog. “How can I get it out unless they turn off the fountain?” By
, David meant all the mysterious people who run the parks and clean the playgrounds and turn on the street lamps at dusk.
D. Dog barked again.
David ignored the question in that bark, which meant, “Why don’t you fish out the silly ball yourself?” David felt exactly as D. Dog did on a number of subjects—water and dog biscuits, for example. They both hated the first and loved the second. Besides, David was fully dressed.
“Maybe one of the kids will bring it back,” David thought. He thought that anyone under the age of ten was a kid. David was eleven, himself.
“I’ll get it for you,” came a voice from behind them.
David turned around. A girl just about his age was standing there in a bathing suit, carrying a large bath towel. Her black braids were caught up on top of her head, making her look old and wise. A girl, thought David. It would be! He had no use for silly gigglers. Always talking about adventures and never wanting them once they came.
“I’m Leilah and I’m going into the fountain anyway,” the girl said. “I’m going to talk to the Wizard.”
“Wizard?” David asked, puzzled. Wasn’t that just like a girl to think of a story like that. “Wizards only happen in fairy tales. And only
read fairy tales.”
“A wizard,” said Leilah calmly, “is just exactly who you believe he is.”
“Well, who in the world told you that!” asked David.
“The Wizard,” said Leilah.
“Of course,” said David. “And I suppose this wizard lives in the fountain.”
“Where else?” Leilah stepped over the low wall. She dropped her towel in a dry place. Then, avoiding the babies who played in the puddles, stepping over three pails and two shovels, Leilah walked into the middle of the fountain. She knocked three times on the silver sprayer and said something directly into the gurgling water. Or so it seemed to David.
Then Leilah picked up the ball and came out. She deposited it in David’s hand.
Shrugging his shoulders in thanks, David looked around to see if anyone was watching them. But no one seemed to care. David wiped the ball on his blue jeans and gave it to D. Dog to carry.
“I certainly didn’t see any old wizard,” said David. “In fact,” he added, “I don’t believe there is a wizard at all.”
“That’s what the Wizard said,” Leilah put in. “He said you would never believe in him at all. But I convinced him that seeing is believing. So he promised to meet us by the west side of the Arch.” She grinned. “I’ve never seen him myself,” she added.
“Okay,” said David nonchalantly. “I wasn’t really doing much of anything else.” He tried to act reluctant, but actually he was more curious than he would admit. Especially to a girl. Besides, this might be an interesting adventure. Without the girl, of course. She’d never go on with it. It wouldn’t be a wizard. Not a real one. David knew they didn’t exist. But it might be some interesting nutty old man. And with those thoughts turning over in his head, David joined Leilah in the short walk from the fountain to Washington Square Arch.
It took exactly sixty steps. David counted them out loud as they walked. That included a detour around a hopscotch game and a quick sidestep to avoid a bicycler. David counted out loud to impress Leilah with just how unimpressed he was with meeting her wizard.
When they reached the west side of the Arch, David looked straight up to the top. The Arch rose above them, some five stories high.
“My name is David,” said David, squinting into the sun. He didn’t want just to stand there saying nothing and it was the first thing that came into his mouth. David often talked that way, bypassing his mind and letting the thoughts just start at his lips. Also, he hated to look at people when he talked to them, which is why he was squinting at the sun. It wasn’t very polite but David wasn’t very polite either. His father said it came from being an only child. He wasn’t, really. He had three older sisters. But since they were five, six, and seven years older, he had always been somewhat spoiled.
“My name is David,” David repeated.
“I guessed,” said Leilah.
“How did you guess?” David asked the question loudly enough for Leilah to hear, too softly for anyone else to overhear.
Leilah smiled. It was a great open grin. “You
like a David!”
David thought that was a pretty stupid thing to say, so he ignored it. “My dog is named D. Dog.”
“Why?” asked Leilah.
David shrugged. “Because that’s his name.”
“I mean, why are you named Leilah or why am I named David? It’s just our names.”
“I’m named Leilah because it means ‘dark as night,’” explained Leilah. She put her arm next to David’s. “See, dark as night.”
David was beginning to feel silly and started shifting from one leg to the other. “How do you happen to know this wizard?” asked David. “Is he a relative? I’ve got a lot of crazy relatives too. I have one uncle who thinks he’s a telephone pole. He’s always having trouble with swallows sitting on his wires.”
“Don’t be silly,” answered Leilah. “The Wizard isn’t anybody’s relative. He’s a wizard. And I am the only
person who believes in him. Except you, of course.”
“I don’t believe in him,” David protested hotly.
Leilah just grinned.
“You’re crazy!” said David.
Just as he said that, four boys almost his age ran past, shouting. At first David thought they were calling Leilah to play with them. But then he realized they were shouting, “Crazy Leilah, Crazy Leilah,” as they passed by. It made David feel both angry and sad. Angry that the boys would gang up on a silly girl—even if she
crazy. And sad because he was the one stuck with her.
“Don’t pay any attention to them,” said Leilah softly. “Two of them are my brothers. And they always call me Crazy Leilah. I made the mistake, you see, of trying to convince
about the Wizard. So they don’t talk to me any more. But that’s okay, because I don’t talk to them either.”
David didn’t say anything.
“It’s the babies who know about the Wizard,” Leilah continued. “Only because they are real little, and don’t talk very well, no one pays any attention to them. That’s where most people make a mistake. Children know a lot, only they forget most of it when they grow older. My brothers are only nine and ten, but they’ve forgotten already. I just have an awful good memory and what my granny calls twenty-twenty ear-hear. You have probably just forgotten about wizards.”
David didn’t answer, but he doubted that very much. He never forgot anything, that he could remember. Then he said, “I’ve just moved to New York. That’s why I haven’t heard of your wizard.”
Leilah thought about that for a moment. “Probably,” she admitted. After a while she continued. “I listened very carefully to all the baby talk about the Wizard. And then I thought about it,” she said. “If all the little ones really believed there was a wizard, well, they couldn’t
be wrong. So I started to wade. No one over six wades in the fountain. They think they’re too old. And no one over twelve does, either. That’s the law. But I did. I waded and waded and waded half the summer. Until yesterday he gave himself away.”
“How did he do that?” asked David. Even though he didn’t believe in the Wizard, he had to admire a girl who had so much patience.
“He uses the silver sprayer like a submarine thing—oh, what do you call it?”
“A periscope,” said David, scratching a scab on his arm and trying to pretend he was only half interested.
“A periscope,” said Leilah.
“And?” David said, not wanting her to slow down the story.
“And then, yesterday, it moved about.”
David looked puzzled. “What moved about?”
“The periscope,” said Leilah. “And I said, ‘I caught you!’ And out of the periscope came a sad voice that said, ‘So you have.’”