The wind lashed the bricks of the house as I sat near the mantle enjoying the warmth of fire and drink. I examined the metal figurines above the fireplace who depicted a German guerrilla force during World War II against a British unit. The Wehrwolf unit, as they were known. A band of specially trained soldiers who excelled at guerrilla tactics, those of striking at night and waging psychological war.
I rose from my spot and picked up a British Sergeant. I traced the delicate lines and shallow canyons of the face and torso, the slender arms wielding a Springfield bolt-action with a bayonet capable of drawing blood. I poked at my palm leaving tiny dimples that went from white to red and began to itch so I set down the figurine and returned to my chair and took up the glass of wine and drank slowly. It was the first time being alone for Christmas and I have always felt indifferent to that fact up until I remembered how much joy that box of toy soldiers brought Johnathan in his youth before cancer took him from his mother and I.
I remembered watching him from the hallway through the crack of his open bedroom door, the way he’d arrange the soldiers in specific formations he’d learned from field manuals he borrowed from the library. He read those manuals so frequently that the librarian let him keep them. Not once had I seen him depict actual battle, for he always resorted to alliances, truces, or ceasefires; proposing alternative histories to the one we knew, struggling to maintain peace in a world shaped by death.
It was two nights before Christmas when I went upstairs to watch his military reenactment. I saw that he had the guerrilla unit sitting around a campfire made of toothpicks and small shreds of newspaper. Some had their arms positioned around the necks of others as if they were comrades. The British Sergeant laid next to Johnathan’s head gripping his tiny Springfield rifle, the bayonet plunged into the pillow. The lights were on and my son was not breathing.
Before his mother left, she tried to take the toy soldiers with her. That was the first time I had ever hit a woman. I begged for her forgiveness, it was only a slap, but she turned her back and ran and I have heard nothing from her since.
I still play with his soldiers and read the manuals he left dog-eared on his bedside table. I read intensely the passages underlined and cherish the small notes made in the margins and the diagrams sketched in the corners. On the bad days I’ll sleep in his bed with the Sergeant and wish for peace in a world shaped by death. When I sleep in Johnathan’s bed we are together, boots on the ground, running from the indigenous people of the forests. I am confused by this nightmare and I often wake up screaming and short of breath. It is dangerous sleeping in Johnathan’s bed, but it still smells like him and I miss him so much.