Daydreams of Angels, p.23Heather O'Neill
There was no way to escape now. There was nothing he could say or do that would change his fate. He was already a dead man, really.
Since part of his body was mechanical, he was able to withstand pain better than most people, but not that much more. They had broken the fingers of his right hand but those of his left were still working perfectly well. He used them to pull his matchbox out of the breast pocket of his shirt. He opened the matchbox slowly, in order that the cricket might be released. He had given the cricket a leaf to eat a few days before, but he really hadn’t thought about it since then. The cricket climbed out in fine form, scurried up the arm of the tin soldier and perched on his shoulder. The cricket was as close as possible to the soldier’s ear so that he would best be able to hear what it had to say.
It told him his life story, including all the sad things about his terrible childhood in Canada that he had forced himself to forget. Instead of reminiscing about all the very good times that he had had, the soldier let himself remember his own tragedy. He thought about how his dad would come home and beat his mother in the kitchen and how he would hide in the closet. He remembered how his father had kicked him out of the house when he was sixteen years old. He reminisced about how he’d lived on the streets and in boys’ homes for two years before the war happened and how he’d enlisted in order to have a square meal and some new boots. It struck him deeply that nobody had cared when he went off. These were his last moments on earth probably, and he decided that he would allow himself to feel grief. He wanted to feel upset, full of regret and consumed by sorrow. These were the wonderful things in life. These were the emotions that were more like works of art than anything else. That’s why we had music in this world, to make us feel such complicated things.
The soldier wondered who would actually notice that he was gone. Who would accidentally put a plate out for him months and months after his death? The soldier tried to recall each of the girls he had been with while in England. He imagined them in their kitchens, at their kitchen tables, eating their clam chowder, their corned beef, their cornbread, their Spam, their pickled eggs, their meat loaf, their ratatouille. But he knew that they were probably not really thinking about him.
The only person who was worried about him was the Toymaker. He was probably painting the feathers of a beautiful bird in his workshop. But perhaps he had stopped painting altogether and now lay in bed, sick with worry over what had happened to his dear soldier boy on that walk that he had never come back from. The soldier thought of that Toymaker, who had nobody but a feisty black cat and a bunch of fickle children hanging around. The Toymaker, who had never known the love of a woman and had only ever wanted a boy of his own.
But he could not think of the Toymaker now. He didn’t know the names of his fellow spies or members of the Resistance that he had been working with. They had all been careful about that, so that in the event that one of them got captured, they would have nothing to reveal. Even when he had made love to French girls, he had always warned them not to tell him their names.
He did know the name of the Toymaker, however. The children repeated it about a hundred times a day. He hoped and prayed that he could keep it to himself and not give it to his torturers. It wasn’t as though confessing would set you free. Once you had given up your names, they would shoot you in the woods and leave you there, if you were very lucky. Or they would put you in a concentration camp where you would stand in line for death.
The door burst open and two men came for him, unlocking his chains and dragging him off the bed. He couldn’t help but fight to get away from them, and he squirmed from their grasp onto the ground. One man kicked him in the stomach, which knocked the fight out of him momentarily. The other man pulled him by the scruff of his neck down the narrow hallway.
He grabbed at the wall with his left hand, but all that he managed to snatch was a bit of the wallpaper with blue roses on it that came off like the page of a book. They pulled him into the clean white bathroom, where another man waited.
The white tiles were slippery. They pulled off his coat and his sweater and flung them aside. The bathtub was filled with water and when they plunged him into it, the freezing temperature shocked his body and his back arched and his legs jolted so violently he thought he might break them. It froze him all the way to the bone as they forced him under the water. He grasped wildly, struggling for some way to come up for air, but there was nothing that his limbs could do for him now. His universe had shrunk down to the size of a bathtub and there was no way out of it. They pulled him out for a second and then shoved him back under.
He had never felt so trapped. Every time he went underneath the water he felt sure that he would drown. He had no idea what it would feel like when he couldn’t breathe anymore or how much death would hurt. There was a terror of the unknown all around him. That same feeling was being experienced all over Europe. There was a little boy who had crawled under his kitchen table during an air raid who felt it. It was in the heart of a little girl who had been separated from her parents and was now stuck on a crowded train. There was a boy touching a bullet hole, terrified because he didn’t feel a thing. There were ninety children all feeling it at once on board the SS City of Benares passenger ship, which had just been struck by a torpedo. And they all kissed their dolls and teddy bears and told them not to worry and wished them Godspeed.
The soldier inhaled and the water finally came in, burning his lungs. They pulled him out and flung him onto the floor, where he lay, coughing and vomiting water. He was shaking so hard from the cold that he couldn’t speak. No part of his body was still and his teeth were chattering against each other. The intricate wires in his brain began shortcircuiting, the sparks taking the form of a thousand neurotic thoughts all at once and causing an unbearable pressure in his head. His stomach flooded with motor oil, making him nauseous. And his heart was beating so fast that all the bolts and springs began to explode out of their proper spots, like tiny mortar shells being flung about his insides. He wanted everything to work properly in his body, he never wanted excitement again, he wanted this to end.
It was just a matter of time before he gave them what they wanted, wasn’t it? Resisting torture is a myth: everyone confesses in the end. There is no way not to. We are humans and we are built to be capable of betraying everyone in the end. Our pain makes us vulnerable. We can all be got to. We can all be turned upside down like a purse and have all our contents shaken right out of us.
The soldier reminded himself again that he was different. He wasn’t quite a real boy. He was callous and insensitive and his heart was hard. Those qualities would come to his aid now. If his heart was mechanical—if his parts were all replaceable—then he should be capable of withstanding torture. Let myself break, he thought. I can be put back together.
He went back under three times. On the third time, he came out, sputtering for air and vacillating as the spark plugs in his spine began to blow one by one. And he spoke the Toymaker’s name aloud. Or it was more like the Toymaker’s name escaped out of him. The secret was afraid of drowning and so it came out of his mouth in order to belong to someone else.
When he heard the Toymaker’s name come from his lips, the soldier knew, to his own surprise, that he was a human being. Nothing remarkable could be expected from him.
This time when they pushed him back under the water, he inhaled and there was suddenly a strange calm that entered his lungs and flooded through his body. He felt the hands of the torturer let go their grip on him. It was as though they were strings that had just been cut. He felt himself sinking down to the bottom of the bathtub, free of all restraint. The bathtub seemed to have depths that he was hitherto completely unaware of. He had kept his eyes squeezed shut until that moment. Now he opened them to discover that there was water all around him. It wasn’t the cold clear water of the bathtub, but the messy, strange green-blue of the ocean. It was filled with all sorts of life.
The fish went by like leaves being blown
He could not say how long he had been under the water, as time seemed to be irrelevant now somehow. His shirt had been torn open while he was being tortured. For some reason he thought to button it up and as he did, the soldier noticed that all the scars and seams that the Toymaker had made while operating on his chest had completely disappeared. You would never know that he had been operated on, or that he had been built and repaired in any way.
He felt the presence beneath him. It was a cold feeling, although it didn’t involve a drop in temperature. It was more like the sensation of darkness. He felt the dark shadow growing beneath him. It was so silent and he wondered how anything so enormous could also be so quiet. He thought that he should get to the surface again, so that he could escape whatever was beneath him.
As soon as he broke through the surface of the water, the jaws of the whale also exploded open around him. They then closed around the soldier, swallowing him and bringing him back down into the depths. Deeper and deeper and deeper.
There he was in the great belly of the whale. He thought that it would all be darkness, but to his surprise, there was a light that was glowing. He didn’t know what to make of it. He followed it as he climbed over the half-digested creatures. The thin bones of fishes crunched under his feet as the frozen rose brambles had once, as though he was learning to walk again.
There, in the centre of the stomach, was a small table with a candle burning on it. There was a tiny pot that was filled with krill that were jumping up and down in it. The Toymaker was seated at the table, holding a fork and looking into the wide pot. It seemed as though the Toymaker was going to eat the fish while they were still alive.
“Papa,” said the soldier.
The Toymaker looked up and cried out, as if his deepest wish had just been answered.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Grandfather announced that when he was little, before the war, Christmas was his very favourite day of the year. We couldn’t begin to imagine how strange and magical the Christmas he turned seven was, he said as he poured himself another glass of eggnog. My brother and I sat down at the kitchen table, eagerly awaiting the ridiculous things Grandfather would have to say about that particular Christmas. We were undoubtedly about to hear some story about a reindeer with a Russian accent and a drinking problem throwing up on his lawn. That’s because Grandfather’s stories were always so over the top. According to him, you see, the world before the war was a very different place.
Grandfather used to say that when he was little, potatoes actually had tiny little eyes that would open up and look at you. You could hear seashells laughing and talking to one another on the seashore. When you were at the beach, it sounded like you were in the audience at a circus when the lights went off and the show was about to begin.
At the zoo, there was a lion that knew how to say a few words. You had to yell and scream and beg in order to get it to say them. Crowds of kids would shake the bars and curse until finally the lion would roll over and say, “Go away.” Everyone would applaud.
It was harder to tell the difference between when you were asleep and when you were awake. Children would sit and slap each other in the face, trying to wake one another out of a dream when things weren’t going right.
When Grandfather was little, there were always people trapped in air balloons. You would stand on ladders, and when they passed overhead, you would offer them sandwiches.
Girls would fall so madly in love back then, it would almost kill them. They would hold on to three umbrellas and jump out the window after their mother locked them in at night. It was very common for pretty girls to have broken ankles.
He said that sailors had tattoos of beautiful women that would literally dance on their arms and pucker their lips for a kiss. That’s why almost no one got tattoos back when Grandfather was little. They were harder to live with and sometimes they started to nag.
There were so many babies back then that you couldn’t remember where they came from. His mother came home with a parcel wrapped in pink paper. She was sure that it was a little piece of ham that she had bought, but when she unwrapped it, lo and behold, it was a baby.
Grandfather said that when he was little, before the war, he was always hungry. He said that he and his mother would regularly go without eating for five or six days straight and his eyelashes would freeze shut from the cold.
“But the minute I woke up that Christmas morning, I knew something truly out of the ordinary was about to happen,” Grandfather said, pouring himself yet another glass of eggnog.
On the Christmas morning that he turned seven, Grandfather continued, his mother dressed him up in a new sweater and said, for five minutes straight, how beautiful and handsome he was. She couldn’t stop kissing him, as if it was a curse.
Later in the day, his uncles and aunts, whom he hadn’t seen all year, came toppling through the door, wearing fancy outfits and drinking and being merry. They kissed him all over the face with their boozy, boozy breath. They sang songs and knocked over some plates and broke a couple of cups. Cousin after cousin kept showing up, until there were maybe thirteen cousins in the house.
Then his older brothers started arriving with their girlfriends. The girlfriends laughed and sang and drank too much, trying to show off what a good time they were. Grandfather had never seen such pretty girls as the ones his brothers brought home that Christmas Day, with their red lipstick and perfect curls and fancy party dresses. And they all toasted one another and life while sitting on his lucky brothers’ laps.
Right before they were about to sit down to eat, Grandfather’s oldest brother, Toots, came in dressed in his army uniform. He was going to be shipped off to Europe in two days, and everyone went wild seeing him. They almost never saw Toots anymore because he was always off gallivanting and pursuing some new girl or money-making scheme. He sang a dirty song he’d picked up downtown and he did his famous impersonation of James Cagney.
The table was covered with food. The turkey was so enormous that you couldn’t put your arms around it if you tried. There were mounds of sweet potatoes and cranberries and corn and sweetbreads. And then there was round after round of cakes and cookies. You couldn’t possibly imagine how much his family ate that day. They ate like the big bad wolf in fairy tales, who could swallow whole families.
And the house, which was usually so cold and bleak, was filled with cigarette smoke and laughter and yelling and tears and accusations. And everyone telling the same favourite memories that they would tell every Christmas. And they laughed about jobs they had lost, and girls who had gotten away and pets that were in heaven.
Even though Grandfather sometimes felt left out during the year and like nobody on earth loved him, everyone remembered to bring him something so lovely that Christmas Day. He suddenly felt like a regular Little Lord Fauntleroy, what with all those gifts. He got teddy bears, mittens with snowflakes on them and a little tin fire engine.
That night seemed to last and last and last. No matter what was going to happen, if Toots never came back from the war, which he never did, and some of the girls grew fat and unhappy with his brothers, which they did, they would always have this night when everyone was happy and worry-free.
It seemed like with everything Grandfather recalled, he imagined it bigger and better and stranger than it could actually be. But this Christmas Day, to our surprise, seemed like any Christmas Day in any household. It was as if he couldn’t imagine anything grander than the typical Christmas that people were having. It was magical enough on its own and couldn’t be improved upon. This sort of made my brother and me feel very warm inside.
But then, after his fourth glass of eggnog, Grandfather told us that later in the evening, Toots took off his jacket and his mermaid tattoo started flirting with one of the cousin
“Excuse me,” the reindeer said. “I get motion sickness with all this spinning around the world on Christmas night. Not to mention I had a few too many with the elves before leaving the North Pole.”
Then the reindeer staggered up into the sky, skirting past the girls leaping out of windows, and circling around the wayward air balloons whose passengers sat in the baskets, singing Christmas carols.
Then Grandfather’s mother noticed that the reindeer had left behind a package: a little bundle wrapped in fish paper. She opened it and found Jeannie, Grandfather’s youngest sister, who happened to have been born on Christmas Day, curled up and sleeping inside.
“And that,” said Grandfather, “was what Christmas miracles were like before the war!”
THE WOLF-BOY OF NORTHERN QUEBEC
Two years before we met and fell in love, Pierre-Loup was discovered in the north of Quebec, half-naked and covered in filth. It was the newspapers that nicknamed him Pierre-Loup, a name he told me he could never stand. At the time of his discovery, his identity was confirmed as that of Pierre Normand, who had gone missing from a campsite eighteen years earlier. Everyone thought the little Normand boy had long been murdered or had starved to death, but this was not the case. Pierre had been living among the wolves.
Sightings of the legendary wolf-boy had been common in the north of Quebec for years.
“There’s Pierre-Loup,” high school boys would tell their girls, pointing into the woods, and the girls would clutch them tighter. People would occasionally claim to have seen a naked little boy running out of their yards with strangled chickens in his hands, laughing. When he was seven, the wolves found him red rubber boots, a pair of shorts and a brown sweater in a garbage dump. As a clothed little boy, Pierre-Loup was able to venture into parks and supermarkets and steal whole barbecued chickens to bring back to the pack. The wolves had never eaten so well in their lives, and in this way, Pierre and the wolves lived their lives happily, with Pierre becoming a valued member of the pack.
Daydreams of Angels by Heather O'Neill / Fantasy have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes