Toy Soldier

“Of course, of course I shoot. Of course I kill. In the war. I kill because if I don’t, they kill me.”
He had big, watery eyes, and his irises were golden-brown, as if the color of dead leaves stained with blood had become entrapped there. He sat hunched, in a constant flinch. His hands were oddly quiet and still – but it wasn’t calm that made them so, but rather the tension of imminent fight or flight. Even though both his buttocks were sunk deep in the armchair, he seemed to be on the edge of his seat. If he’d have wanted to, he would’ve been able to be up and running before the woman across from him knew he’d left his chair.
“It was war – you had to shoot. You wanted to live.” The doctor’s soft voice was melodic and almost too soothing for him. He had known women who looked like her once, and he had seen them contorted in shapes that this doctor couldn’t even imagine. He couldn’t meet her eyes. He was scared that if he did, she would be able to see his commanders grinning at him, calling him a good boy, and giving him a small, unripe fruit as a reward for the work he’d done during the day. And then there’d been the better reward, the reward that he even now craved and wished he could get again, even though they – the new they, not the old they – had explained to him that it was bad for him and that he couldn’t have it anymore. It had taken him days to get out of bed, he’d felt so rotten without it all, but he felt alright now, though the thought of that reward still made him twitch at times.
The silence had stretched on until he couldn’t stand it, so he broke it again. Those golden-brown eyes of his looked at the corner of the room, where a spider had made an elaborate web. He had good eyesight, and he watched the spider move across the web to fetch its dinner. It must have been an old spider because it moved slowly. “Yes. I wanted to. But it was bad. It was very bad. But they promise – they always promise it would be last time.”
“And you hoped, every time, that maybe this time they meant it.”
The spider had reached its meal and it began to detach the wrapped, cocooned insect from the man web so that it could hold it in its front legs and hold it up to its mouth. He watched it. He almost thought he could see it smiling.
“I liked it. Sometimes.”
“It?”
“Shooting. What they gave me after.”
There was another long pause, but this time the woman broke it, her voice so gentle and careful that he looked at her for a quick moment just to make sure it was really her speaking. “You liked it just like they wanted you to like it.”
“Yes.” He hadn’t meant to sound so harsh, but his voice came out that way, raspy and deeper than usual. His voice hadn’t changed yet. He hadn’t thought about the impending joys of manhood since he’d been a little boy admiring his father’s chest hair. He hadn’t really thought about growing up in years. He hadn’t been sure that he was going to grow up. He still wasn’t.
“Am I bad?”
“Do you feel bad? Do you think you were bad?”
“I was. But I didn’t want to be.”
“So maybe you were’t, really. Because you didn’t want to.”
“And now I can be good. Right?” He wasn’t sure if the question was the one he wanted to ask. It wasn’t really about being good. It was about what being good meant. Being good had meant shooting just a few months ago. Now being good meant something different, he thought, something that he remembered from those early years before they – not the current they, but the past they – had moved into his life. What scared him was that being good was going to change again, soon, and that he wouldn’t be ready for it this time. If he couldn’t keep up with being good for whoever the future they were going to be, then he would die. And he knew, although he couldn’t quite put it into words, that he’d done too much by now to be able to retract his decision to live, no matter what.

Remembrance

Contrary to popular opinion, James E. Jones was not rich. He had a rich name, this is true, and he wore beautiful clothing to school every day. But what nobody knew was that the clothes were all his father’s and that he wore them because the family couldn’t afford to buy new clothing for him. It was lucky for James E. Jones that he grew up very quickly and that by seventh grade he was as tall as his father, because it meant that when he started junior high, all the other kids thought he was rich. At his old school, everyone had laughed at him for his strange, grownup clothing.
Now James E. Jones was in high school, and he was going to graduate soon. He had never been to a party and had never kissed a girl. He had friends, though. They were two boys who were interested in math and science just like him, didn’t go to parties just like him and had never kissed girls – again, just like him. They were the outcasts, this group of three overgrown boys. As seniors, they were all lucky enough to have passed the weedy phase, and they looked like they were approaching manhood, but their minds and hearts were still too young for their overgrown limbs and their chest hair.
It was on a day in March that James E. Jones decided to do something. He’d been thinking for a long time that he hadn’t really, truly, done anything in his life. Sure, he’d kept the secret of his family’s intense poverty, just like his parents had always asked him to, but that wasn’t anything special, that was second nature by now. It was true also that he’d won first prize at the science fair for two years running – the first time for building a small machine that could put broken eggshells back together and the second time for managing to breed blue rabbits – but he didn’t consider that to be an achievement either. He was smart, but it wasn’t like he’d done anything in order to become so. He was just lucky that his parents were smart and had passed on their genes to him. His little sister, for instance, he considered to be dumb as a doorpost, but he loved her just as he would have loved someone intelligent, because it wasn’t her fault that she found infinitely more interest in playing dress-up with her friends than in reading James E. Jones’ kids’ science magazines that he’d stolen from the school library years ago.
He wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to do, but he knew he wanted it to be his own, something personal that nobody else could join in on. He wanted to do something that would make a mark, give him one day that he would remember forever, and hopefully also allow others to remember him, too.
There were a few brief moments when he thought about finding a gun and shooting up his classmates. He knew that would allow him to be remembered in the school forever, but it would be in infamy. He wanted attention – he admitted this freely – but he didn’t want to be hated or abused. He knew that some people who shot up their schools were given sympathy by the media and even, occasionally, by other classmates, but he didn’t think that anyone at his school knew him well enough to award him with some kind of sad and shocked understanding.
He thought about committing suicide, too. He didn’t really see much point in life, and when he thought about it, lying on his bed and looking at the marks on the low ceiling where he’d squashed mosquitoes over the years, he realized that he’d never found much reason for living. He was rarely actively happy. At most, he was engaged. He wondered whether there was something wrong with him, but he figured that if there was, someone would have noticed it by now and done something about it. Committing suicide was too risky, though. What if he lived? Then he would just feel pathetic for the rest of his life, and his attempt would be remembered as just another failed and misguided plea for help.
The days and weeks slipped by and James E. Jones still hadn’t made up his mind. He had almost reached a decision and a plan had half formed in his mind on the last day of classes. His thoughts were buried deep within his mind that morning as he walked towards school. He didn’t notice the truck that was zooming up the highway that he had to cross over to get to school. When the memorial service was over, and the school library was renamed after him even though his parents couldn’t donate any money for it, James E. Jones got what he wanted.

Creatures of the Mind

Far off in the meadow,

Resides the fairy queen.

She’s always dressed in yellow,

Her face always serene.

**

High up in the cloudy sky,

Santa Clause snores away.

His wife bakes him apple pie,

For warmth on chilly days.

**

Deep down in the earth,

The devil plays at cards.

He welcomes to his turf,

All sinners, cheats and bards.

**

In every theater around,

Dionysus spends some time.

He helps sew up the gowns,

And always shares his wine.

**

The graveyards hold Death,

In all his austere glory.

He’ll take away your breath,

When it’s time – don’t be sorry.

**

In recesses of our minds,

Inside the hearts of all,

Live things we can’t define,

Unreal creatures, great and small.

 

 

A Birthday Card and Love Letter

To the dear, amazing, wonderful and incredible author, world builder and inspiration, J. K. Rowling,

(And also, to the fictional character who we all wish was real, Harry James Potter,)

I want to you wish you an incredible birthday. Many months ago, in May of 2009, I wrote a short little piece about how the Harry Potter books were the first ones I read on my own. I’d like to go further now, and tell the story again, because I truly believe that without the Harry Potter books, I wouldn’t have become the reader I am today. If I wouldn’t have become the reader I am, I wouldn’t have begun to write. I wouldn’t have discovered the wonders of dozens of other authors, their worlds, their views and their legacies.

But it all started with the eleven-year old wizard, forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs, that was invented by you, Miss Rowling. And I’d like to share the story of how these books changed my life, and why I’m so grateful to you.

When I was eight years old, my chief activities were playing with my friends and watching television. I was a TV kid. When I was even younger and my mother taught me how to read in English, I fought tooth and nail against it. Remember, I’d learned Hebrew at school with everyone else, but my mother wanted me to be as fluent in English as I was becoming in Hebrew. I was already bilingual, but she knew that if I didn’t learn to read and write in English as a child, I’d probably lose a lot of the benefits of being so.

By the time I was eight I knew how to read in both languages, but I didn’t like to. I liked being read to – I loved stories, it’s true. It was also the age where my friends and I spent our time inventing stories and plays and games. Stories were a big part of my life, but words on pages weren’t.

Shortly after my ninth birthday, my brother turned thirteen. For his Bar Mitzva, a great-aunt of ours gifted him with the first three Harry Potter books, the third of which had only just come out, all in hardcover. I remember I thought to myself that the books sounded dumb when someone explained to me what they were about. My nine year old mind wasn’t excited, for some reason, by the prospect of a wizard boy.

My brother read the books on his own, of course. I remember distinctly, however, the first evening my mother started reading the first book to me. I was in my bed, the same one I still sleep in now, and she read the first line, “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” I remember cutting in then and saying something along the lines of “But the book’s called Harry Potter! Who are these people?” and my mother smiled and told me to wait patiently and we’d see together.

A couple weeks later, when we reached the chapter titled “Halloween,” while my parents were having their Friday afternoon nap, I read the whole chapter alone without telling anyone. When my mother started reading it to me that night I felt so guilty that I confessed that I’d read it alone. I thought it would hurt her feelings. She was, of course, ecstatic, and gave me her blessing to continue reading the book, and the next and the next, on my own.

So Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (I had the American version) was the first book in English that didn’t have pictures in it (except for those small ones above the chapter titles) that I read most of alone, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the first book of this sort that I read completely alone, from start to finish.

It changed my life. I just kept on reading. I discovered a love for fantasy, that led me to dozens of amazing books, and later branched out to every type of book imaginable. If I’d never reached that point where I wanted so badly to know what was about to happen that I picked up the book and read the next chapter alone, then I’d never have become such an avid reader. And being a reader… means the world to me.  I can’t imagine ever living without books. I can’t imagine never reading.

Harry Potter remained with me for years, and he’s still with me. I grew up with him. When he turned seventeen when the seventh and final book came out, I turned seventeen. The books saw me through the beginning, middle and end of puberty, they saw my first kisses and first periods, my first relationship and first breakup. They saw me through my father’s death. I can’t count the times I’ve read them. I know that they’re going to remain with me for my entire life.

Thank you, J. K. Rowling, for creating a world, characters and plot so amazing that you convinced a nine-year old who watched as many hours of TV a day as she could to find the wonder and beauty of words. Thank you, Harry Potter, fictional as you are, for being the star of this author’s books, for being courageous but normal, for being talented but average, for making me feel kinship with you. Thank you, Hermione Granger, the Weasleys, Remus Lupin, Nymphadora Tonks, Serius Black, Fleur Delacour, Luna Lovegood, Dean Thomas,Seamus Finnegan, Neville Longbottom, Lee Jordan, Oliver Wood, Angelina Johnson, Alicia Spinnet, Katie Bell, Parvati Patil, Lavender Brown, Professors of Hogwarts, Rubeus Hagrid, the Malfoys, Dobby and Winky, Messrs. Crouch and Bagman, Tom Marvolo Riddle who grew into Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters, and, last but definitely not least (and I’m probably forgetting so many other good characters here), Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore- thank you for filling eleven (so far) years of my life with your magic.

A Relationship

“I can’t take it anymore!” Nell screamed. “I just can’t! I don’t know what I can do anymore, I really don’t!” She was at her wit’s end. It had gone on for far too long, and she had no idea how she’d let things get to this point. “What more do you want me to do for you, huh? What more can I do to please you? I can never win with you, you know that? It’s a lose-lose situation, no matter what I do!”

She huffed, and paced, walking from one side of the carpeted living room to the other. Her hands clasped behind her back, she tried to calm down a little. “Is there something I can be doing that I’m not? Tell me – is there? I’ll honestly do whatever it takes. I’ve been with you too long to give you up, even though I’m this close,” she held up her hand, forefinger and thumb almost touching, she was holding them so near. “But I’m not going to run from this – relationships are something you need to work on, everyone says so.”

Continuing to pace, Nell waited. And waited. The silence lingered. She burst out again, unable to restrain herself. “But how can I make you happy if you don’t tell me how?! I feed you, I clothe you, I bathe you – I take care of you, damn it! But you keep saying it’s not enough! I try to do things for you, I really do, I swear I do!”

Tears now stained her face. Her voice broke and she sat down heavily on the couch, pulled her legs up and hugged them tightly to her chest. “Tell me, please, I beg you, tell me what I can do,” she was rocking back and forth, sobbing, her anger evaporated. Only a deep, heavy sadness remained. “Please… please tell me… Tell me how I can make you happy – I’ll do anything, I swear, I promise, I really will,” she looked up imploringly, her eyes two pools of salt-water, pleading, waiting for an answer.

There was no one else there.

Combination Lock

Three turns to the right. Stop at “Guilt.”

Two turns to the left. Stop at “Self-loathing.”

One turn to the right. Stop at “Guilt for the narcissism of self-loathing.”

Open the safe. Inside, you will find another, small safe.

Three turns to the right. Stop at “Anger.”

Two turns to the left. Stop at “Impatience.”

One turn to the right. Stop at “Self loathing for feeling angry and impatient.”

Open the safe. This time, you’ll find a drawstring bag inside. Open it, and out will flow dozens of small, egg-sized capsules. Each is clear, with a folded up piece of paper inside of it. You can open the capsules look at the writing on the papers if you like. One will say “Happiness.” Another will say “Misery.” Another will say “Oddball.” Another will say “Unique.”

There’s something else in the cloth bag. If you reach right to the bottom of it, you’ll find a needle. The moment you try to pull it out, you’ll find the cloth bag unraveling. But if you leave the needle in place, you’ll be able to put all the capsules back inside. Then you can draw the strings shut tight, and even tie them. You can put the bag inside the first safe, and put that back inside the second. You know the combination now, so it’s no trouble going in and retrieving the bag whenever you like.

But what if you lock both those safes and throw them into an ecologically correct trash heap? Melt them down, use the metal to make… not bullets or guns, no… not spearheads either… and not jail-bars… how about wrought iron railings, delicate and beautiful, the kind you can train vines and flowers to grow around? Then you can still feel safe, but you don’t have to look at a cage or a weapon. You can’t use the railings against yourself, because you can step over them and make them beautiful. Forget the flowers – even without them, they’re beautiful. Just wait, see if other people admire them. I’ll bet you they will.

What about the bag, you ask? Well, that’s still with you, isn’t it? Tie it to your belt. Let people look into it sometimes. Let the people you love go in deeper, and sometimes maybe take a risk with a stranger. Don’t worry, they can’t steal anything. Even if they take one of those capsules in there, a new one will pop back instead of it. But more importantly, spend some time with that bag yourself. Look into it. Sort it out. See what belongs and what doesn’t. See, this is the magic about it – if anyone else tries to take something away, it’ll pop right back. But if you give it to them willingly or get rid of it yourself, it’s gone for good.

Careful, though. Don’t throw away “Compassion,” or “Love,” or even “Fear.” Don’t let yourself throw all of it away, both good and bad. Keep most of it. Just sort out things like “Pointless Guilt” and “Worthlessness” and you’ll have a good start going.

But remember the combination. If you don’t know how to open that first safe, you’ll never get anywhere. What if the combination changes, you ask? Ah, well, if it does, I trust you’ll be able to listen to that little click-click when the wheel hits the right place, so you’ll crack it in no time. Just make sure to try.

Mandy Meets the Goblins (Part 2)

” A goblin, of course,” said Rocky. “As a young lady like yourself should know already.” This puzzled Mandy. A lady? She, a lady? And how would she know what goblins looked like, anyway? The look on her face must have mirrored her thoughts, since Rocky spoke up again. “Well, maybe in this, this country you’re in, they don’t teach young ladies how to recognize goblins.”

“No, they don’t,” Mandy confirmed. “I’ve only ever heard about goblins in the picture books that Miss Turner has up at the school, and in those, goblins are big and really mean. You’re not mean, are you?” She’d already realized he wasn’t big.

“No, no, not at all!” Rocky looked shocked at the very thought. “We’re like… like… What is the word for someone who makes wishes come true?”

“A genie?”

“No, that isn’t it. A longer word. I cannot remember it.”

“A fairy godmother?”

“Yes!” Rocky beamed at her. “Goblins are like fairy-godmothers!”

Mandy took another good look at him. He really was quite green, and apart from the horns on his head, his skin seemed kind of strangely prickly looking too. He definitely didn’t look a thing like any fairy-godmother from the picture books.

“So,” she began slowly, thinking hard. “You’re here to make my wishes come true?”

“Well, it’s like this,” Rocky began. He tried to stand up again and fell over, so Mandy lifted him off the pillow and onto her bedside table where he could stand. “Thank you,” he said. “It’s like this,” he began again. “Goblins can’t exactly do that. Not exactly. No, what we can do is help you make a wish – only one wish, mind – come true.”

“But how does that help?” Mandy was disappointed.

“If you make a wish come true, it’s much more special than just having it come true all on its own, isn’t it?”

“Not really,” now she was getting angry. “I don’t care if it’s special, I just want my sister to stop being sick!”

Rocky jumped, with surprising speed, onto Mandy’s face and, feet on her chin, he held to pieces of her hair in his hands and leaned back so she could see his face properly. “Shush! Do you want your parents to wake up?”

Mandy shook her head, and Rocky along with it. She was a bit afraid of him now. He was very fast, and even though he hadn’t been mean, exactly, he’d been quite strict for a creature that was as tall as her hand. Once he’d jumped off her back onto the table, she whispered, “I’m sorry.”

“No need to be sorry,” he said briskly. “We’ve just got to get started. You’ve told me your wish already, right? You want your sister to get better.”

Mandy nodded vigorously.

“Let’s get started then!” He rubbed his hands together, and started bouncing around the room at incredible speed, dropping things into Mandy’s lap. By the time he’d finished, Mandy had in her hands a get-well card her sister had written for her when she was small and had gotten chicken-pox; a scarf that Mandy was trying to knit for her sister; a shoe that had been a hand-me-down to Mandy from her; and finally, a bouncy ball that they’d played with together.

“Um, what do I do with all of this?” Mandy asked.

“Look here – your sister gave you a card when you were sick, a shoe when you needed one, and a ball when you needed a friend to play with. You started to knit this scarf almost a year ago, but I can tell,” here he nodded wisely, “I can tell that you haven’t touched it for months.”

“I know, it was just too hard,” Mandy started to explain. And then she stopped. And then she thought. Her sister had stuck by her when she was growing up. But Mandy hadn’t visited her for weeks now, scared of what she’d find. She and her twin had used the neglected chores as excuses to stay away, but maybe their parents would have left the invalid’s room if she’d had someone else to sit with her for a while. But they couldn’t, since Mandy and her brother were so scared of seeing their big, strong, beautiful sister just lying there, listlessly.

“But,” Mandy began, as if she’d thought aloud. “But even if I finish the scarf, even if I sit with her, how will that make it better?”

“Maybe it won’t. But maybe it will. Maybe she misses you, eh?” Rocky stretched both hands over his had and held onto his horns. He swayed back and forth, smiling, and then, with a sudden, rushing noise, he was gone. A whisper remained in the air after him – it told Mandy that if she needed a little help, she could call on the goblins.

Mandy was never quite sure if she’d dreamed that night or not. She did, however, start going to her sister’s sickbed. She insisted on opening the windows and letting in sunlight and air. She forced her parents to leave and do some chores themselves. She knitted her scarf, sitting on the edge of her sister’s bed and getting tips from her on what she was doing wrong.  She got her twin brother to make up jokes and tell them to their sister and make her laugh.

She spent time with her. And neither Mandy, nor her sister, ever forgot that.

On Command

“Sir-yes-sir!”

Lyle was practicing in front of the mirror again. He had on the army uniform costume that he’d worn on Halloween, and he’d stolen the medal out of his mom’s sock drawer. It was draped around his skinny neck, the gold-colored part resting somewhere around the level of his belt. He marched up and down in his room, trying to make his limbs as stiff as possible, and then turned back to the mirror.

“Sir-yes-sir!”

Under different circumstances, the sight of an eight-year old boy wearing a Halloween costume and walking like a robot would have been amusing. But as it was, it made Robby, Lyle’s older brother, throw his backpack violently across the room. It hit Lyle, who went down right in the middle of another salute.

“Shut up, you idiot, mom’ll be home soon!” Robby gave his brother an extra shove and went to the bathroom to shave. He’d been with his girlfriend after school, and she’d told him she didn’t like his itchy stubble. Trying to calm himself, Robby took out the old razor and placed it on the sink. He lathered his face with lotion, and began, with hands still trembling with anger, to scrape the old, thin blade across his cheek. He managed not to nick his right cheek, his upper lip and his chin, and moved on to the left cheek.

A scream seemed to tear the house into pieces. In the bathroom, Robby cursed as the razor blade cut into his cheek and blood started to seep out of the thin slice. It mixed with the shaving lotion until the lower half of his cheek looked like a marshmallow. Rinsing himself off, Robby got a wad of toilet-paper and held it to his cut as he opened the bathroom door with a crash. A horrible scene met his eyes.

Lyle was face down on the floor, his mother leaning over him. She had the ribbon the medal hung on in one thin, wasted hand, and she was pulling at it, hard. It was still around Lyle’s neck.

“Mom!” Robby dashed forwards, and forced his mother’s hand to let go. He heaved her backwards, away from Lyle, pushing her until she was leaning against the far wall. Her eyes looked dead, and she made no move to go back to strangling her son, so Robby left her and bent over Lyle, turning him over. He was breathing – crying, choking on his mucus and tears, but breathing nonetheless. He huddled in Robby’s embrace, hiding from their mother. Flashing a look of scorn towards her, Robby picked him up and carried him to their tiny, shared room. He took the medal off of him, got him out of the costume and put him in bed. He drew the covers over him and tucked them snug. Lyle was already asleep when he left the room, curled up into a ball.

“How could you, Mom?” Robby faced his mother, who still hadn’t moved from where he’d pushed her. He held the medal forth. “This is what you want? This stupid piece of tin and some gold paint? Take it! Here, take it!” He threw the medal at her feet. Her eyes moved towards it, and she finally moved, kneeling down to pick it up. She looked at it lying in her hand, caressed it, and then held it closely to her breast. Raising her eyes, she gave Robby a withering glare. He didn’t budge, didn’t say a word.

“You never – do you hear me, son? You never talk about your father’s memory that way again.”

She rushed into her bedroom, closing and locking the door, before Robby could scream at her that his father was dead, that he died in a stupid war, that the medal didn’t really mean anything, that his father’s memory lay nowhere near the stupid thing. He slumped against the wall. It was too much, suddenly. It was all too much. His mother had never gone this far before. And Lyle – Lyle was just like her! Why did her need to steal that thing out of her drawer every other day?

Trembling, forgetting about the tissue that was still stuck to his face, Robby went down the hall to where the phone rested on a small table – his father had managed to get a great bargain on it at the flea market, Robby remembered that day… Without dwelling too long, though, he picked up the phone and dialed.

“Aunt Jenny? It’s Rob. Robby. My mom – she – Lyle – I just… We need help.”

Beast

Surrounded by mirrors
You cannot escape.
You surround yourself.
Stare and gape
Wide eyed
At the truths you uncover.

Screaming at yourself,
Hitting,
Scratching,
Biting,
Self-loathing,
Covered in blood.
You pause and see yourself-
An animal.
A primitive being
Unable to control itself.

Rage, anger, hurt,
All forgotten
In the shock of discovery.

Through it all,
A small light in the corner of your mind.
It leads you back into yourself.
It makes you believe that perhaps,
Just perhaps,
The mirrors deceive you.
Someone loves you.