We used to read William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble every night. It’s the story of Sylvester Duncan, a young donkey that finds a magic red pebble, and, faced with a fierce lion on his way home, Sylvester panics and turns himself into a rock. His frantic parents look all over for him, but give up in despair after a month of searching. They are reunited a year later when his parents lay out a picnic on the rock that is Sylvester, and happen to find the red pebble and put it on the rock. Sylvester wishes successfully to be himself again and they all go on happily with their lives, saving the pebble for a time when they may need something more than to be together as a family.
Whenever I read this story to our children, I find myself identifying with various characters in the story. On some days, I am the mother and W. is Sylvester, hidden in the stone of autism, wanting to get out but locked in the by the spell of the pebble. We are Mr. and Mrs. Duncan, haplessly eating lunch on the rock, wondering how we can possibly go on with our lives when the fate of our son is such a complete mystery to us. On some nights, the story in my head ended there, with W. still trapped inside the rock.
There are more dramatic versions. There’s the Harry Potter version where Sylvester the Dobby rock starts hurling itself around, crashing into people and things, a possessed bludger that no petrifying spell can stop. The wayward rock eventually wears itself out, but only after leaving most of the Duncans’ town of Oatsdale beaten and bewildered. Mr. and Mrs. Duncan split a bottle of dandelion wine and dream of summer on the beach.
Occasionally, I am Sylvester, trapped inside the rock, wondering how I got there and wanting only to sleep to forget how I got myself into such a spot. The world moves around me, the people and seasons come and go but because I am a rock and I don’t look like myself no one knows I am there. I am inches from the magic pebble that will set me free, but I am helpless to touch it or even be sure that it is there. My parents are gone. I cannot be rescued the way Sylvester was; there is no one to rejoice over my return so perhaps it doesn’t matter whether I am a rock or not. But just as I warm to my mid-life crisis, I am touched by my magic pebble – it is W., reaching with two fingers to push up the sides of my mouth to make me smile. And it is M., with a smooch that could bring the hardest granite to life. And A., too, working her own magic just by reading her own book on the floor next to us.
And there are magic pebble days, days in which someone or something brings our beloved W. back to us. On these days the story ends just as it should; the boy I see and the person he is inside are one and the same and we inhabit the same world. The magic is the love we share, in his friends, in the water and sand of the beach, and in the people who work so hard to make the world understandable to him and to make him understandable to us. These are the best days of all, and as the years go by there are more and more of them, and that is a miracle I don’t need a book to help me understand.