She was always criticised of being slow off mark when random objects were thrown her way - a ball, a passing remark, a handkerchief redolent of fragrance, a smile indicative of mysterious imports, or simply a rapid, piercing cry uttered by a tiny hapless robin before it was crushed by a nameless, reckless foot. Her customary response to such moment was one of stunned puzzlement; she would then proceed to curl her body into an awkward form of an exclamation mark, whilst involuntarily subjecting herself to the mocking laughter that rippled through the jeering crowd. Her mother once remarked that this was precisely why she was never anyone’s favourite.
But in dreams her senses were the keenest. Numerous disparate scraps of remembrance that risked a wholesale deletion from human history were salvaged by her retentive memory. In dreams she was inclined to travel back to the happiest moments of her life- the time when her everyday was intimately bound up with the tin soldiers.
The tin soldiers, dozens of them, with their backs erect, their uniforms of red coats, indigo breeches and glistening, tricorn hats, their solemn demeanors that bespoke utmost deference for the unknown authority, all lining up meekly at the command of either her spasms of mischief or enduring affection. They gave her joy and had buoyed her through many occasions of despair. But as of why and when she formed such attachment to, what her brother would call, the “stubby, drab-looking woodmen,” the sort of toy that seemed so incongruent with her girly nature, she could never explain. Just as she couldn’t explain why, amongst the troop, she had an especial fondness for one who was slightly cock-eyed, with hat askew, uniform dishevelled, one leg- through unknown causes- shorter than the other, so was always of a wonky stance, and face all scrunched up, as though in perpetual pain.
Thus her childhood endured and elapsed, barely perceptibly as one would barely perceive the brewing of storms that happened behind showers of blazing sunlight. The day when her life was encroached by the shadows of war, she naively thought all would be abated somehow, just as every unfortunate event that she’d undergone. Every day there was new evidence of destruction and ravage, of order and peace dissolved into pell-mell, of woes that hastened in the wake of grief. She carried through in a manner of unspoken tranquility, insofar as her family thought she simply yielded to the assaults of stupefaction, rather common to anyone who lacked the grip of reality when in face of crisis. They wouldn’t mind her staring at the tin soldiers for hours on end, for they had far too much to worry about than attending to a silent child. There was still no news of her missing brother, who was conscripted to the army not long ago, and not long ago tidings came that the front line was collapsed; the nation suffered a thorough drubbing. Even the dullest people would be gifted with a febrile faculty of imagining, and storytelling, at a moment like this- between weeping and wailing her parents would envisage all kinds of horrible fates that may befall their doomed son. She would then stare at those graphically conjured images in awe.
During war she went to bed every day with the foreboding that tomorrow would be her last. After many nights of such fatalistic apprehension she no longer feared of the imminent peril, but went to bed every passing day despondent of the unrealised outcome that she slyly anticipated. Life seemed to her until that point too tedious a smooth sail; the sea had made very few waves. Nevertheless the unforeseen did happen- and who could blame the inexperienced heart that dismantled all that had been sedulously planned out by the sober brain when the event struck? After the first rush of astonishment that traversed her body like thunder, she instinctively hid herself in a closet, whilst downstairs her parents could be heard bawling and shrieking; there were a few kickings and various household items tumbling down, followed by three sharp bang-bangs, and all fell silent.
Life was sustained by such moments of excitation. She suddenly realised that the tin soldiers were still out on her bedroom floor. She nipped out of the closet and tried to gather as many tin soldiers as she could and stuffed them into the closet. From not far away she could hear the approaching of some steady, menacing footfalls; coupled with the dutiful and still cheerful tickings of the cuckoo clock; punctuated at times with the conspicuous droppings of the tin soldiers. When he peered in through the door she hadn’t even the time to start; there were still several soldiers missing. A few grunt of foreign words splashed down her head. Her eyes made a slow travel before it made out the whole forbidding presence that stood before her. She couldn’t recognise who he was but he looked just like one of the tin soldiers. A sudden swoon assailed her.
Silently he fished out a stray soldier from beneath the bed. She saw, lying inert on his palm, the grotesque little stubby woodman that, amidst the chaos, she didn’t even realise was missing. His uniform was torn, his eyes flared up into a frenzied stare, his curiously lopsided mouth curled into a shuddering grimace, and, the most agonising of all, his whole body now reduced to only an upper torso. She tried to muster tears but her eyes were dry and bleary. Years of chronic impassiveness had inhibited her from giving in to elementary sensations; she knew the language of grief but she knew not how to say it.
She could feel his fingers meandering about her face. He smelt faintly of peppermint and clove. She gave no sign of her eagerness to retrieve the wounded soldier from his hand; all she did was to keep staring. Suddenly he tossed it away. And darkness bore down on her. The moment of fear was acute but ephemeral. She heard from not far off the gentle rumbling of a storm-tossed ocean; its choppy waves lashed violently against the flinty rocks, and a little bird serenaded impishly to the tempestuous night. She felt safe and solaced. In her mind’s eye she could see, the wounded soldier smiling at her.