Sometimes wandering down virtual memory lane by way of my external hard drive is wildly amusing. And sometimes it results in unexpected delight. I found a story I wrote years ago, before New Zealand I think, that I thought I'd lost through all the moves and continents. But it's here, found, and now I get to share it with you. It's especially suited to now when summer is preparing to give way to fall and the school year is looming.
Rain Barrel Soldier
It stood at the bottom of the rain barrel and nobody noticed it for years. The rains came and went, the sun seared the boards in the dry summer months, the frosts skimmed the surface with ice, and nobody looked down at just the right moment. It stood unnoticed until a clear day in July when Tim was ducking his face into the cool water. He screeched in surprise and plunged nearly half his body into the barrel before surfacing with it in his hand. He raced indoors to show Mother and Newt.
From that day on it was Tim’s favorite plaything. In an age of electronic marvels and computer communication across continents, Tim latched on to this little token from the past as though it were a long-lost treasure. And it was. Toy soldiers that simply stand a prim guard until imagination calls them into service are a lost art. Tim found myriad reasons to engage the rain barrel soldier in every kind of maneuver. The summer marched on with relentless determination and soon the leaves dangled crisply from the trees at every turn. Tim was back to school and Newt too, his first full grade. The toy soldier stood forgotten on the shelf in Tim’s room, half-shadowed by a book on asteroids and comets that had fallen out of place.
Sometime in November Tim thought of the soldier and went searching. It was nowhere to be found, however, and no matter how Tim threatened Newt he wouldn’t admit to taking it either. Mother intervened and a thorough search was conducted. The little soldier was lost. For Christmas that December Tim unwrapped four gleaming regiments of soldiers, all straight and stern in their cellophane wrapping. Soon enough glorious battles were waged all about the living room floor with Newt’s remote control car serving as a troop transport to the kitchen. Mother learned to negotiate her way through complicated assaults while preparing dinner.
The weeks wound on until the school doors flew open with a definitive thud and released hundreds of giddy children back into the embrace of summer. Tim set up a dug-out in the front yard and sent walky-talky messages to Newt’s multi-vehicle troop transport around back as the battles begun in December gave way now to full-out war. Four new regiments came by Express Post and the war expanded to include several Gameboy tactical consoles and a handful of tanks. The days unfurled like so much linen in July wind on the line.
One day Tim was plunging his face into the cool of the rain barrel when he spied a figure standing on the bottom. ‘Hey,’ he thought with a frown. ‘It looks just like my other solider.’ He stretched in and plucked the tiny figure out of the water. Indeed it was the little lost soldier, back where he had started his journey a year ago. Tim regarded the figure with some bewilderment but Newt’s voice over the walky-talky shook him out of his curiosity. Toy soldier in hand, he raced back to the front lines.
“Newt,” he called over the walky-talky, “I found the other solider. The one I lost last year. I’m putting him in with the First Battalion.”
“Okay,” came Newt’s crackled reply. “And I’m sending extra troops around now.”
That dinner there was much chattered speculation as to how the soldier had managed to get back into the rain barrel but nobody could come up with much of an explanation and after generally blaming Buster, the family Retriever, the topic was dropped in favor of some excitement over which rides would be the most nauseating at the carnival next week.
The next morning Tim and Newt came out to their war to discover that the Third Battalion had inexplicably been pushed back to the oak by the First Battalion in the night. Tim accused Newt of fixing the war which Newt vehemently denied doing. Nonetheless the Third Battalion had indeed been forced into a hasty retreat and the beleaguered First Battalion showed signs of resurgence. Tim glared at Newt who responded by erasing the Regimental Order on the Gameboy, causing a wrestling match that stopped only when members of the Fifth Battalion found themselves cruelly crushed by Tim’s flailing foot. Medics were dispatched, wounds were summarily healed, and the war was resumed. The inexplicable actions of the First Battalion were forgotten and dinner came all too quickly.
That night Tim awoke to a flash out his window. It looked rather like a burst of sparks from a campfire. He climbed sleepily out of bed and peered out the window. The front yard was eerily littered with soldiers from the day’s battles and in the moonlight their shadows stretched misshapen across the lawn. There was no fire that Tim could see and the memory soon faded. He crawled back into bed and slept soundly.
The skies had opened by morning and it was raining drearily, liquid splashing up off the stones of the front walk and pooling in the garden hollows. It ran in little rivulets between the soldiers, and the grey sky cast a worthy pall over the entire scene. It didn’t let up a smidge until well past sunset. Tim watched the sopping yard from his window until Mother forced the blinds shut and pointed him firmly towards bed.
Morning rose over the yard with a wild spray of gold, as though the sun had bounced out of gloomy exile all the more brilliant for having missed a day. Tim and Newt raced out to their war and stopped short, mouths slack and brows furrowed. It might have been the rains that shifted the soldiers, it’s true. It might have been the puddles that had carried entire regiments across the yard. But what could explain the strict formation they held? And the clear upper hand that the First Battalion appeared to have gained over both the Eighth and Fourth Battalions? Tim stepped into the battlefield and peered at the soldiers. There were tiny soldier limbs lying haphazardly among the blades of the grass. The fallen members of the Eighth and Fourth were bloodstained. And the First Battalion held the garden ridge with a stern line of defense, at the centre of which stood Tim’s rain barrel soldier. Neither Tim nor Newt felt much like playing and cleaned up the limbs in silence. That day they rode bikes deep into the woods by the lane and returned scratched, tired, and content to dinner. The battlefield was left as it had been and Tim closed his blinds resolutely before bed.
The next morning the First Battalion had completely decimated the Eighth and the Fourth and held a strict line opposing the Fifth on the far side of the chrysanthemum bed. The following day saw the Fifth in a quick retreat back to the oak with half their members bloodied and mutilated in the lawn. The next day the Fifth was defeated and the First Battalion stood undaunted against the Second around the far side of the oak. And the next day rose on heavy casualties for the Second and unfortunate members of the Third who had arrived to assist in the battle. Mother questioned why the boys had lost their appetite for playing with their soldiers but Tim and Newt could only stare at each other with no answer to give.
Late on the Thursday evening Tim crept stealthily out of bed and slipped out the front door. The moon glimmered oddly over the night-dark grass and Tim thought he could see shadows moving about in the lawn. The tiniest sound of plastics hitting could be heard in the thick quiet. Tim tiptoed down towards the oak. He thought he heard a shout. The shadows stopped their dancing and the quiet pressed closer around him. He stepped around the oak. The First Battalion had moved over the position formerly held by the remainder of the Third and had surprised the Seventh at the crest of the walkway with an attack from behind. Tim bit his lip. He reached gingerly down between the stalwart figures and plucked the rain barrel soldier from their midst. He closed his fist tightly around it and turned his back on the battlefield. He raced back into the house and up into his room where he shoved the soldier into a shoebox in the back of his closet. Heart pounding he slid into bed and squeezed his eyes shut.
Tim slept late the next morning and was awoken by the sound of Newt’s yells from the front yard. He sped downstairs and out the front door. Newt was by the oak gesturing wildly.
“They were attacked finally,” Newt said breathlessly. He pointed to the First Battalion and indeed they appeared to have suffered casualties at long last. The Seventh had recovered quickly from the surprise attack and turned in force on the First. Tim covered his mouth with his hand, eyes wide.
“Let’s go to the lake today instead,” he said to Newt at last. Newt shrugged in acquiescence. The day was spent fishing and tormenting toads by the lake’s edge. Thoughts of soldiers were far from either boy’s mind until after dinner. Newt gave Tim a questioning look before being shuttled off to bed. Tim dared to peer out the window at the moonlit yard but could see nothing. He thought, after Mother had shut the door, that he could hear the faintest thumping sound coming from the closet. He shoved his head under a pillow and counted in his head until sleep claimed him.
The next morning Tim and Newt discovered that the Seventh Battalion had been joined by the Sixth via troop transport sometime in the night. The united Battalions had waged fierce battle on the remaining members of the First and had driven them back against the oak. With casualties lining the lawn from the walk to the oak, the First had apparently been in no condition to ward off the final assault. The Sixth and Seventh Battalions had taken no prisoners. Not a soldier still stood in the First Battalion. Mother hustled the boys off to visit their grandmother for the day. Nothing more could be done on the battlefield until the next morning. When that day broke the boys fairly launched themselves out of the house and down to the oak. The soldiers had not moved. The Sixth and Seventh Battalions stood exactly as they had the previous day.
Later that afternoon Tim pulled the shoebox out of the back of his closet. He opened it gingerly. The little soldier lay in the corner of the box where he had been thrown. The painted expression betrayed nothing. Tim picked it out of the box and stood for a moment with the soldier pressed into his palm. Then, with a pursing of his lips, he appeared to make a decision. He walked slowly downstairs and out the door. Around the side of the house stood the rain barrel, the water surface smooth as glass and half shaded by the attic overhang. Tim stared into the barrel as though in a trance. Then he held his hand over the water and opened his fingers. The tiny figure seemed for a moment to cling to his hand before dropping and splashing into the water. Tim watched the soldier drift lazily to the bottom of the barrel. Then he turned on his heel and raced out to find Newt.
A year passed in a flurry. Seasons wound themselves around the house and shunted the boys through holidays and a rigorous school year. When summer came again, Tim and Newt were hardly recognizable. Boys sprout like weeds from July to July and the summer breaks make the most of the time allotted to them. One day Tim roused himself from a lazy nap and made his way to the rain barrel under the eaves. He ducked his face down into the water as he did every summer, only this time it was a longer duck before his nose broke the glassy surface. Pulling up he wiped the liquid from his face in a fury of sunlit droplets. Then, on a sudden remembered whim, he peered to the bottom of the barrel. It was empty.
* * * * *
Many years later the house grew a new family within its walls and when summer came, a boy burst from the front door like every other boy the house had ever known. He flew his remote-control jets around the aged branches of the oak and rode his bike along the walk in a jolting frenzy of motion. Late in the day he passed by the rain barrel and thought it a good idea to plunge his face into the cool water. Opening his eyes into the barrel he spied a small figure standing on the boards at the bottom. He rose from the water sputtering and with much splashing ado pulled the figure from the depths of the barrel. It was a tiny toy soldier.
- Corinne Simpson