Brother and SisterGrace Andreacchi
When I was eight years old something happened that changed the course of my life forever. My brother and I were skating on the pond in the woods behind our house when the ice cracked beneath us. I managed to roll clear of the hole onto a thicker patch of ice, but my brother drowned. He was only six. I wish I could relate that I made heroic efforts to save him, but in fact I did nothing of the kind. I lay very still on the ice, breathless with terror, and watched while he thrashed helplessly, then disappeared beneath the cold, black water and shards of broken ice.
For a long time after he died I didn’t think about my brother at all. I pretended to myself that I’d never had a brother, and this was made easier by the way every trace of him soon disappeared from our house. Practically overnight his toys were gone, his clothes were gone, his drawings vanished from the refrigerator door and his photograph from the wall, just as his voice vanished from the echo in the stairwell and his footprints from the lawn. Then one day I found a box of toy soldiers that had once belonged to him. He had hidden them in a secret place under the stairs, and no one had thought to look there. I found them by accident one hot, sunny afternoon when I was playing hide-and-seek with my imaginary friend, Gretel. I’d been hiding from Gretel for a while in the cupboard under the stairs, it was cool and dark there, and I was enjoying the respite from the heat and wondering how long it would take her to find me when I slipped my hand up behind the curve of the stairs and felt something. It was a shoebox held closed with rubber bands, and inside were my brother’s soldiers.
These soldiers were his favourite thing in the world. Not really soldiers, but medieval knights in armour, each sumptuously kitted out in individual style, and made of soft, pliable plastic that allowed you to change the angle of lance or plume. Many of them were on horseback, but a few were foot soldiers. The Black Knight, who straddled a black horse and swung a ferocious-looking spiked mace, was of course the villain. The knight with the sky blue plume on his helmet and the blue cross on his breastplate was known as Sir Lancelot and was my brother’s favourite. As I took them out of the box and handled them, one by one, everything about my brother returned to me. I remembered once again the sound of his voice, which was unusually low for a small boy, the way he used to roar at the birds to frighten them and then laugh deliriously as they fluttered away. I remembered his smell, and the colour of his hair, which was light brown and very curly. I took the soldiers back to my room and hid them under the bed.
That night, when I was sure that my mother and father were asleep, I took the knights out of the box and set them up in battle order on the little table, just as my brother used to do. I didn’t dare turn the light on, but I could see them quite clearly by the moonlight streaming through the window. Suddenly the Black Knight stirred, and swung his mace at Sir Lancelot, nearly chopping off his head. Sir Lancelot ducked just in time, then wheeled round and dealt the Black Knight a tremendous blow with his sword that threw him from his horse. The Black Knight screamed in agony and shook his fist at Sir Lancelot. Now all the knights were in a frenzy, hitting and slashing at one another with their swords. I crouched behind the bed, frozen with terror, powerless to stop them. Soon the Black Knight had regained his composure and climbed up onto the bedside lamp, from which he rained down arrows at his enemies below. But when Sir Lancelot followed him the lamp tipped over and went crashing to the ground.
There was silence, followed by the sound of running footsteps, and my mother came into the room. ‘What was that?’ she said. ‘Are you all right? I thought I heard something...’ She put on the overhead light and looked at the shards of broken glass and the toy soldiers that had belonged to my brother. ‘What are you doing?’ she said. ‘It’s the middle of the night,’ she added, when I didn’t say anything. Then she stooped down and began to put the soldiers back into the box. She took the box away with her. We never spoke of that night, and I never saw the soldiers again.
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