In the swath of brown grass bridging the front yards of our adjacent townhomes, Colin and I have marshalled our miniature armies, squinting over them like two ornery generals. The opposing forces are strategically arrayed across the lawn in rows, parabolas, and herringbone formations. My troops consist of First World War American doughboys, spirited Zulu warriors, medieval Norman knights, mustachioed German hussars, and several swaggering cowboys in chaps. Colin is in command of flinty Roman legionaries, prim-looking British Grenadiers, French cuirassiers from Napoleon’s Grand Army, Japanese samurai in full armour, and grey Confederate cavalrymen. The groupings are different each time we meet, though we always adhere to the same ceremony of us both dumping a shoebox full of figurines into a collective pile, which prompts a selection process that is part deliberation, part scrounging.
Because Colin cannot hear or speak, we conduct our enterprise in lumps of silence, broken only by the occasional throat clearing, or by Colin’s gleeful, almost babyish squeal whenever he discovers a soldier placed just so. Colin owns a repertoire of what seems like unfinished words and strangled syllables, the meanings of each I am slowly deciphering. I have figured out that each of those numb, disjointed sounds he produces signals something very specific—a memory triggered by a blue jay alighting upon a branch, or perhaps an anxious sensation induced by the rumble of a passing truck, even the throb of impatience when I take too long in selecting my army.
Colin and I are roughly the same age, at the mouth of adolescence, and though Colin is nearly a head taller than I am, he retains the supple, open-ended expression of a much younger child. Colin is a neighbourhood original: he has lived in the house here all his life, has grown into it as he has grown, like a cactus, into all the surrounding severities to which his deafness binds him. I have heard some of the older boys on the street refer to him as “the village idiot,” while girls giggle and cross their eyes at him as if it were their favourite pastime. And Mr. Parkes, a hatchet-faced retiree with a moist lisp living at the end of the block, once slapped Colin across the face for drinking from his garden hose.
My family has lived here just over a year now. For Colin and me, the tin and plastic soldiers have become our one-note source of mutual interest; we keep company for nothing else. Or perhaps it only seems like there is nothing else because the vague, replicated episodes of swimming in summer, tobogganing in winter, and biking in autumn all too quickly melt together in the memory as blurs of undifferentiated motion. We do not attend the same school, and I have no recollection of Colin ever wanting to visit the corner store with me and the others guys to buy licorice or an ice cream bar.
This afternoon the primrose-coloured sun is high and partially concealed behind the corner of a cloud, in the way that the sun always protrudes from the upper corner in a child’s drawing. The sky is an indelible blue. Our armies in front of us are set so vividly against the clear, clean day they are almost animated. It is at translucent moments like these that I realize soldiers are defined more by a common bond than by a common enemy. I can see it even in the spread of tiny figures at my knee. The staid uniforms and glossy armour, the slashing scimitars and polished derringers can all be substituted one for the other. But remove one figure from its placement, and a sad vacancy is created. There is more valour in comradeship than in killing. I hang on my bedroom wall a pewter replication of the seal of the Knights Templar. It is a plate-sized artifact that holds the tarnished image, in relief, of two bedraggled, helmeted crusaders on a single stallion. It is supposed to represent brotherhood and poverty, I am told. Perhaps you cannot have one without the other, because it has occurred to me that absolute brotherhood, like the absolute bond between two elements at the chemical level, requires an impoverishment of everything else around it.
Every so often, a stately beetle or jouncing cricket will pass through our diorama as if tourists in a museum. Once, a roguish squirrel rushed in and made off with an olive-coloured marine. But no other children come and join us, they just bustle past in slack little gangs, leaving me feeling marooned. Occasionally, an unsolicited rock will pounce into a section of our soldiers, accompanied by clouds of snickering or mock regard, like the clouds of dust that trail galloping horses. Colin never looks up at the perpetrators, only at me, to check if I will smile at them, as a gauge of how deeply the conspiracy runs. I can always sense that slight blur of rotation in his chalky complexion, then the clamp of scrutiny on me, then the release of the moment’s traction as the rowdies grow bored and move on.
A figure approaches out of the sunlight. It is Virginia, a girl from the next street over, where a set of two-storey, gable-roofed townhouses identical to ours exists. She lives in the equivalent to Colin’s house, fourth from the corner. She is wearing a short yellow sundress, and she is barefoot, her elegantly aligned toenails painted a watermelon red. Her shoulders and arms gleam, enhanced by a milky coating of lotion. Virginia is a few years older than us, and, approaching that sacred grove of womanhood, is rumoured to have a curfew well past ten o’clock (the after-ten world, unknown to me, resonates through my bedroom window each night as darkly mystical as a druid’s grotto) and friends who can drive. And yet, she is still betrayed by a raw, childish spray of freckles, as she is now, whenever the sun lingers too long on her.
“You certainly spend a lot of time with those things,” she says, standing on the edge of the lawn, indicating with a finger. Her fingernails are painted a darker red than her toes; they are almost purple, the colour of spring azaleas. Colin and I pause in mid-duel.
“It’s better than spending time with you,” I respond.
“What’s the big thrill about it anyways? ”
“That’s for me to know, and you to find out.”
Virginia gives a little cluck of exasperation, joins her hands behind her back, and crosses the position of her feet. She sways for a second, and, at the instant that she limberly corrects her hips, presents a strikingly fluent form for someone her age, moving with the swirling ease of a ballerina. Virginia already possesses that quiet but luminous feminine quality that will be called, as she grows older, such things as grace, guile, naïveté, vulnerability, self-assurance, and charm.
“You have to do something for me,” she declares.
“Don’t be such a brat. If you won’t do it, I’ll get somebody else,” she says with the provocative, omniscient air of someone who believes there is an obligation to accept this irresistible proposal of hers. She is standing boyishly akimbo now, in an open stance, and a pout has eclipsed her face. I am fascinated by a pale diaphanous delta that forms on the sheer material of her dress between her thighs where sunlight passes through the organdy. Her cool, knowing, green eyes homing in on what she probably interprets as my lecherous fixation, seem to trap sunlight and fade into a soft beryl colour, like the calm, shallow patches of a tropical sea.
“All right, what d’you want? ”
“I dropped a contact lens in my backyard doing cartwheels,” Virginia explains. “You’ve got to help me search for it.”
As I rise in an almost reflexive manner, I clumsily trip over a section of my patiently waiting army, knocking over several figures. I look down. The casualties include my favourite pieces, three Spartan hoplites, so intricately crafted the individual strands of the horsehair crests on their battered helmets can be perceived, and the scars can be traced quite easily along their naked thighs. The Spartans devoted themselves to military training from the age of seven, the same age I began collecting my model soldiers.
“You coming or not? ” Virginia asks. She is making a stooping motion, her arms extended over her head like a worshipping pagan, practicing for a cartwheel. The muscles in her pale calves tense, then release. I wait for her to proceed with her gymnastic display, but she never completes it. It’s an unfinished gesture that seems deliberate and tantalizing.
I watch her step over to my mother’s tulip bed where she bends over and sniffs the bulbous heads of some bright red King Edward tulips, and then absently picks at the drooping petals of the pink buttercups in the back. It impresses upon me that she is the general of her own inert army.
I am about to march off with Virginia when I realize I should notify Colin how long I will be away. As I turn, a lead figurine hits me square on the bridge of my nose, and it is soon followed by the first trickle of blood.
I have foreseen this day.