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Daydreams of angels, p.21
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.21

           Heather O'Neill
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  When he saw Grandmother leaning against a stone wall, it was love at first sight. She was eighteen years old. She had a black top hat perched at an angle on her head. Her hair had grown out since it had been so brutally cut, and it now curled around her earlobes. She was so pretty in her black dress and high-heeled shoes. She had a brand-new coat slung over a suitcase that she was carrying in one hand. She was smoking a cigarette with her other and she was the only person in the huge mob who wasn’t smiling. He knew right away that she was a displaced aristocrat. She had ridden out of Paris when it was first occupied in a car with a pile of birdcages, a poodle and three maids. She was the type of girl who could write poems in cursive with a piece of chalk. She knew magical things about forks. There were probably philosophical texts that had been dedicated to her. She was exactly the type of girl that she was before the war. He took her away from France when she asked him to.

  * * *

  And when she was done with her story that day, she held up a hand mirror in front of her that had a painting of a rose on the back of it.

  “I wonder what Marie would think of me now,” she said. “She wouldn’t be so angry with me. She wouldn’t be jealous of me now. I wonder if her hair is still so dark. It was so pretty. A lot of people didn’t think that she was pretty, but I really thought she was so lovely.”

  Grandmother could get lost looking in a mirror and wondering out loud to herself about what Marie was up to, for hours sometimes.

  “She must have gotten old just like me. Of course, she would have had to. How strange? We were the same age, you know. She was three days older than me. We both named our cats Napoleon Bonaparte.”

  Grandmother was always wondering what on earth had ever happened to the magnificent Marie. After all these years, she still longed to have Marie whispering questions to her in the dark.

  “The way that air smells like snow reminds me of Marie. I can’t imagine why.”

  She sighed, and we knew that for a moment she had forgotten about my brother and me. This was what had enraged our mother so much when she was young.

  You might assume that our grandparents had an unhappy marriage. But Grandfather never seemed to mind coming second place to Marie or that he could never live up to the events that had happened in Grandmother’s past. Grandfather felt that he had pulled a fast one on the world by marrying someone so classy and refined. Naturally she was harder to please than the wives of his friends, but that was because she had much more sophisticated tastes.

  Just as Grandmother was finished telling her story and had put down her hand mirror, Grandfather jumped up and hurried across the room to turn on the radio that was in their big wooden stereo. There was a radio show that he liked that played old-timey records. He was doing some sort of dance move where he snapped his fingers and bent over and took little tiny steps backwards. My brother and I found his dance routines hysterical. Grandmother looked at him for a moment as if he were completely insane. And then she couldn’t help but start laughing out loud. She laughed just like a child.


  Once upon a time there was a young Quebec soldier in occupied France. The Germans couldn’t differentiate between a Québécois and a Parisian accent, and so French-Canadian soldiers made perfect spies. This unfortunate Canadian soldier, however, had been turned in by an angry Parisian girlfriend and was shot fifteen times in the chest by a German soldier. He lay on the ground in the woods, looking up at the sky, waiting to die.

  The branches of the trees were all laughing at him. It was winter and the snowflakes were falling from the sky slowly. They were enormous, as though old women had crocheted them for a church sale. Looking at them, the soldier didn’t think that death would be so bad after all. All he had to do was close his eyes for good this time, but he kept opening them to get one more peek at the world around him and because he wanted to be human for one more second.

  His life wasn’t flashing before his eyes at all. In fact, he couldn’t really recall anything about who he was. Or perhaps he couldn’t be bothered to remember anything. He just wanted to have these last moments to himself. He felt as if he was on the verge of figuring something out, as if some greater meaning was about to be revealed to him, but then it wasn’t.

  Two faces appeared above him. They were the round faces of two little girls. They had on black peacoats and red mittens. One had a pale face with blond curls tumbling onto it. The other had short black hair and thin bow lips.

  “Bonjour, bonjour,” they said.

  Their words turned into small puffs of smoke in front of their faces. They took him by the shoulders and shook him. Their dogs were hopping all over his legs and licking his cheeks. He felt them lifting his body onto a little cart. They were scolding their dogs and calling them all manner of beasts.

  The soldier closed his eyes. It was all over for him. The bumpy road turned into the soft waves of the sea. He was sailing away, away, away to some place.

  * * *

  As the girls drew up to the doctor’s house, one of them opened the lapels of the soldier’s jacket and put her ear against his chest. When she raised her head, her ear and cheek were covered in his blood, but she hadn’t heard any heartbeat. They brought him to the doctor, who quickly pronounced the man dead. He told them to bring the man to the mortician’s, as he himself was in the middle of a meal. The girls decided to bring him to the Toymaker’s house instead. He could fix any toy and bring all sorts of broken things back to life. Their cheeks were the loveliest pink known to humanity due to the effort that they had taken in pulling the soldier all the way to the Toymaker’s house, which was all the way out of town.

  The Toymaker had always been shy. He had thought that he would overcome it as he grew older, but this had not been the case. He walked through the village with his head down, trying not to make eye contact with anyone. He felt wretched when he was anywhere but his toy shop.

  His workshop was where all his friends were. He was busy all the time, bringing things to life. He made dolls with porcelain faces that would speak if you pulled the little chain on their backs.

  The dolls had red, glistening lips. They looked as if they were dying to say something but had been warned not to say another word by their teachers. Their eyes were so shiny that at times it seemed as if they were welling up with tears. Their cheeks were rosy, as if they had come in from skating moments before. And their hair was so curly that it always seemed to be shaking, as if they had just taken the pins out and now it was tumbling down and they were laughing.

  The Toymaker looked in the mirror and couldn’t help but notice the contrast between himself and the dolls. He was so old that great bags had formed under his eyes and his nose was bulbous and covered in spider veins, but inside he had always felt like a boy. The voice that spoke to him in his head was that of a boy. He dressed the same way that he had when he was ten years old, always wearing a vest with red buttons. He made toys that were exactly to his liking, which turned out to be the same tastes of the children who came into his shop. His refusal to grow up was what made him so good at his craft.

  The Toymaker was also able to make little clockwork figures. He made monkeys in tailcoats and white bow ties—like waiters at fancy restaurants—that would bang their cymbals together. What a strange occupation for a ten-inch monkey. He would laugh and laugh while looking at them. There was a bear that waddled back and forth with a suitcase in each hand as if he were on his way to catch a train. There was a goose that held a trumpet to its mouth and played a lovely tune.

  As much as people found his toys wonderful, no one loved them quite as much as the Toymaker did. He thought they were all so, so enchanting. They broke his heart. But what he could not do was get a doll to love him. Every time he created something that was beautiful, he was struck by a feeling of terrible loneliness.

  Before the war, the Toymaker charged top price for his dolls. It was only the very richest of children that were able to afford them. His dolls were renowne
d and were shipped to rich families in other cities throughout Europe. The children would pull off the huge ribbon from the box and then they would gasp at what was inside. Now there were no orders for expensive dolls from the families in Paris or any other big city.

  But he had a soft spot for all children. The children from the village would knock on his back door. They would be weeping and holding up their dolls that needed emergency treatment. They brought him teddy bears that looked like they had dropsy. They looked like little piles of cold porridge. Some had lost their ears, having been viciously mauled by cats. They were anemic and hungry. There were dolls whose eyes had fallen out and others whose fingers had broken right off.

  He had an illegal doll hospital. The Toymaker would pull out the rows of tiny screwdrivers and tweezers. They were so small that he might as well be operating on insects, giving a beetle bypass surgery. He would put on special glasses with magnifying lenses. The children would cry out in surprise when they saw his enormous eyes. He would take his tray of ceramic hands out of the oven, and his bottles of glass eyes that looked out at him from the cabinets, and make all the dolls come back to life. He would lay the dolls on the operating table and he would mend their broken crowns.

  One little boy arrived once with a notebook and asked the Toymaker if he would do his math problems with him. His father used to help him, but now he had gone off to fight and was in a prison somewhere. They sat together under the table lamp—the golden glow of the dim bulb—doing his homework together.

  But the children always went home at the end of the day. They didn’t really belong to him. That’s why children wanted and loved dolls. They wanted to have something to keep with them always. They wanted to give something a name. The Toymaker wanted that too.

  The Toymaker had a black cat named Cleo that hopped around the house. Its slick fur looked as though it were made out of the same material as a magician’s top hat. But that wasn’t the same!

  * * *

  The Toymaker yelled at the girls to bring the soldier in. He couldn’t believe it. If he fixed this young man, maybe he could keep him. This might be his chance to have a real boy!

  He worked through the night, sewing all the soldier’s wounds with invisible thread. He mended his broken leg with tiny screws and plaster. He ran wires through his arms and his legs and then put an electrical box at the bottom of his head. He bestowed on him a clockwork heart. Ever so carefully, he placed a small speaker behind his vocal cords. Finally, he filled the soldier with oil. Then he took a step back and hoped the soldier would come to life, but he didn’t.

  The children came by every day to see if the soldier was up and about and might want to come and play with them. The little girls yelled into his ears, but the soldier heard nothing. They propped up his head and poured chocolate milk into his lips, but he never swallowed. They held flowers up to his nose to try to get him to inhale. They shoved Cleo’s kittens up to his face because they thought no one, not even the dead, could resist a kitten. But the soldier did.

  One of the little girls was in charge of brushing his hair with a little brush made from the ivory of a dead elephant’s tusk that she had inherited from a grandmother. She swore solemnly that she did not have lice. She brushed his hair for hours and hours. What a lovely pouf of hair the soldier had when she was done. His hair was never going to get out of place ever again and all the girls were going to go bananas about it.

  They brought in a little boy who was in the Children’s Orchestra to perform for the poor Canadian soldier. He played a Bartók tune that he had learned in school. Even though they knew that they were supposed to be sombre, all the little girls began tapping their feet to the tune. One little girl put her index fingers in the air and started waving them back and forth. The tune was so delightful and bouncy that the soldier’s heart could not resist beating along to it. And when the soldier opened his eyes, all the little girls applauded. There were tears in the Toymaker’s eyes.

  * * *

  The soldier had no memory of anything that had happened to him before he was shot and left for dead in the forest. He asked all the questions that everyone had been intending to ask him when he awoke. The Toymaker detected his accent right away and was determined to keep him hidden away from the Germans for the length of this interminable war, at least!

  Because he was convalescing and couldn’t remember a thing, the soldier found that he was often very, very sad. When the Toymaker told him that yes, they were still at war, the soldier was horrified, and he asked him what in the world was the point of any of it. Why should he get out of bed?

  “We just have to try and be good,” the Toymaker said. “We can’t make ourselves happy. That is a foolhardy enterprise. The only thing we can do is make other people happy.”

  For some reason the Toymaker’s words ruffled the soldier. They sounded like advice of some sort. He had an inkling that he had been lectured to before and he hadn’t much liked it. He had never liked being anybody’s son, he surmised. Why did you have to come into this world beholden to anyone? He didn’t actually owe the Toymaker anything, did he? He hadn’t asked to be operated on.

  The Toymaker handed him a little matchbox. The soldier opened it to find a cricket inside that started to play a sorrowful tune, using its wee legs like a fiddle. It made him feel so deeply all of a sudden that he was almost sick to his stomach. He was worried for a second that the Toymaker had actually put him together incorrectly and that there was something coming loose in his chest. He closed the matchbox quickly.

  * * *

  When he was able to get out of bed and stand, the Toymaker bundled the soldier up, wrapping a huge scarf around his neck. The soldier argued that he didn’t need that many layers of clothes, but the Toymaker insisted. He helped the soldier to walk again for the first time in the garden. His legs were weak from having been in bed for so long. He stepped on the brambles of frozen rosebushes, and the ground crunched under his feet as he walked across it, as though he were walking on and breaking bones.

  The Toymaker put out his arms and yelled, “Come to me. Come to me.”

  The Toymaker had sewn together a colourful ball. They tossed it back and forth so that the soldier could get his reflexes back. Whenever the soldier would reach out to catch the ball, he could feel his insides moving mechanically, and he could sense oil being released from his clockwork heart and into his veins. At first it was alarming and he would drop the ball with a shudder. But he soon began to get used to the feeling of tiny cogs and bolts and springs moving around, in the same way that one ignores one’s heartbeat.

  * * *

  German officers had been going around to all the houses in the village, looking for a spy who had been wounded but whose body hadn’t been recovered. The children went home every evening and they told their parents nothing whatsoever about the spy they had found in the woods. In that day and age it wasn’t at all the custom to ask children what they were thinking. So they were able to sit, unassuming, at the other side of the table, with all the wonders of the world locked away in their brains. They didn’t want the soldier to be put in prison or hanged. He could stay with the Toymaker in the woods forever.

  The soldier grew restless in the little house very soon. He grew tired of all the little girls reading him stories out of their fat books. He had had enough of them telling him the long and drawn-out histories of teddy bears and handing him tiny cups that they said were filled with coffee but had nothing at all inside of them. There were things that he needed to talk about—that he couldn’t talk about with little girls or with an old man who claimed to be his father.

  The soldier began to feel the urge to be alone for at least a few moments. Everywhere he looked there always seemed to be little girls. They would cuddle up into his armpit while he was taking a nap. They were underneath the kitchen table and he couldn’t move his legs without kicking one. While he was on the toilet, they would come into the bathroom and try to sit on his lap. They would be stomping around t
he house in his boots and his jacket. There would be three or four of them sitting in the bathtub, pouring cups of water onto one another’s head, whenever he wanted to bathe himself.

  Although the soldier wanted to be treated like an adult, he seemed so young to the Toymaker. The soldier still had such rosy cheeks and seemed so incredibly foolish. The Toymaker wanted to be a father to the soldier and tried everything to bond with him.

  The Toymaker had been working on manufacturing a toy clown that blew up a rubber balloon. He sat across the table from the soldier and set it in front of him.

  “Look at this. It will make you laugh so hard! I’m going to write on the box that if this toy doesn’t make you laugh, you can get a full refund.”

  The tiny clown blew and blew until the red balloon was full and round. The soldier only stared at it, unimpressed.

  “Oh!” the Toymaker said. “It didn’t make you laugh.”

  “You might want to take off that guarantee, buddy. Especially now we’re in the middle of a war. There’s not a lot of laughing going on.”

  “I want you to feel at home here,” the Toymaker said, wanting to get to the point. “I think of you as my own flesh and blood. Really. You’re the boy that I always imagined having. You’re so handsome and so smart. You dress yourself so well.”

  “Geez,” said the soldier. “Do you get like this with everyone?”

  The soldier had no intention of spending the rest of his days there. The thought of it made him crazy. But he didn’t think there was any point in hurting the old man’s feelings, so he didn’t bother to tell him so.

  “Do you have anything to read?” the soldier asked.

  “Yes,” said the Toymaker, happy to be useful. He hurried into his living room and brought back a big book of fairy tales.

  “Do you prefer to read by yourself, or do you prefer to be read to?” the Toymaker asked. “There’s a story in here that my own mother used to read to me when I was little. It is about a goose that always has to protect her goslings from a very fancy wolf who has developed a taste for such birds.”

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