The boy magician
My nephew was not yet two years old when he manifested undeniable evidence of his occult powers. “Ian” was enjoying some quality time with his father, scrambling about on the carpet in the unfurnished front room of his father's house. His Daddy was stalking him, crawling about on all fours and growling, while Ian shrieked with delight and stayed just outside of Daddy's reach. The chase ran to and fro, as the toddler evaded the dreaded tickle monster.
I was sitting on the floor with my back to the wall, my long legs splayed out in front of me. Suddenly I was no longer an innocent bystander. Laughingly dodging his Daddy, Ian decided he could find sanctuary with Uncle Zeno and zoomed in my direction. Little people regard adults as conveniences. If you lie on the floor, you're a futon. If you sit on the couch, you're a cushion. I was about to become a fortification.
Moving as fast as he could, he dashed to a position between my knees, sitting himself down with his back toward me, grabbing the cuffs of my pant legs with his plump fists, and pulling with all his might. I got the clue and let him pull my ankles across each other.
His father paused outside his son's defense perimeter. Ian crowed in triumph at his Dad. The circle was unbroken. He was safe. It was self-evidently the case that Fort Zeno was inviolate and he had cleverly outmaneuvered his father. Once it was clear that his coup was duly acknowledged, Ian did not object when his father snatched him up and tickled him. After all, that's what monsters do.
Ian's prey-and-predator game with his father was nothing I had not seen before, either with him or my own siblings, as well as other nieces and nephews. Perhaps it's encoded in our DNA, children who are good at the game being more likely to take cover and hide from real predators, now conveniently rare compared to past millennia—at least in most suburbs. Ian, however, was clearly aware of special rules for the game, which his father claimed not to have taught him. How did the little guy get the idea that a closed circle was a powerful form of protection? How did he know that his father would respect the power of the boy's defense perimeter?
It seems likely that there is a strong instinctive component in recognizing the closed circle as a kind of barrier. It was remarkable to me, however, that a toddler would unerringly know that others would recognize it, too, especially given that its recognition required acceptance of its symbolic rather than actual power.
Ian is older now and no longer needs to avoid the depredations of the paternal tickle monster. He still plays games that may involve safety zones and can articulately explain the rules governing them. I can't, however, interrogate him about the reasoning behind his spontaneous creation of a safety zone that first time. We remember his glee at his creative coup, but he remembers nothing at all. If only we knew what was going on in his little brain at the time, back when he could do magic.