When Lilia came into her parents’ bedroom one night, eyes sleepy and tin soldier firmly clasped in her little hands, complaining that his singing wouldn’t let her sleep, her Ma thought she’d had a nightmare. She pried the soldier from her daughter’s fingers, placed him on a high shelf in the closet, and locked the door. Then, she motioned towards Lilia’s sleeping father and let the girl slip under the covers between the two of them.
In the morning, Lilia seemed to have forgotten all about the toy soldier. Asked where she’d found him, she simply looked at her Ma with watery eyes. “I dreamt of someone sad,” she said.
“Who, my love?” her mother asked. “Who did you dream about?” But the girl wouldn’t say.
The next night, Ma woke to the muffled sound of the soldier’s singing. She got out of bed, and by moonlight unlocked the closet, cracking the door open just a tiny bit. The singing spilled out clear and warm and sorrowful, in a language she could not understand. The sound made something inside her chest tighten, but she wasn’t frightened. She opened the closet door wider and took the singing soldier in her hand. “What a curious, curious thing you are,” she whispered.
She drew the window curtains and held the soldier up to the light. The song poured out of his parted lips, but the rest of him was lifeless: his eyes empty, frozen wide; his body stiff and cold, right foot on a boulder, right hand closed around a tiny bayonet. She wrapped him in a blanket, put him back in the closet, and went to sleep, lulled by the heavy breathing of her husband. That night, her dreams were filled with images of a faraway but oddly familiar land. There was a smoking chimney—or was it a whole house on fire? A frozen lake. Men dancing—or were they marching? Were these knives or roses between their teeth? A foreign bride showered in flowers.
She told her husband about the singing soldier the next morning while he was getting ready for the fields, still heavy with sleep. He laughed it off and so she said: “I’ll show you.” She took the soldier out of the closet and unwrapped the blanket tenderly, as if presenting her husband with a rare gift. Pa looked at the silent soldier with narrowed eyes—and do they look a bit alike, Ma thought, with the dark moustache, the handsome curve of the shoulders? She placed the soldier in his open palm. He weighed the soldier, then ran his finger over the tiny weapon, the tiny beret, the tiny boots.
“You dreamt it,” Pa said, but there was fear in his eye, and so he locked the soldier in a wooden coffer, and took the coffer out to a clearing in the forest for good measure.
On the third night, the soldier’s solemn song traveled back to the house, poking holes into their dreams with his tiny bayonet. Pa got out of bed, put on his boots, and walked into the forest, moonlight guiding him through the narrow paths and tall trees. The crickets fell silent at the sound of the soldier’s somber voice. Pa found the coffer and put it carefully under his arm. He brought it back to the house and, resigned to the oddness of the world, put the singing soldier on the mantelpiece.
“It is a miracle,” Pa said. “It is good fortune.”
Lilia and Pa worked the land from dawn ’til dusk while Ma labored in the big house. She cleaned and cooked and scrubbed, and fussed in the yard with the chickens and the goats. She loved the big house. She loved every stair, every wall, every plank of the floor. And she loved the yard, the chickens, the goats, the warm, yellow days and the green, green grass.
Sometimes, while drying a porcelain plate or polishing one of her mother’s bronze pots, Ma would think back on the place she lived when she was little—the motherland, the fatherland—before she got married and moved to this new land she now loved. The tall skies, the flowering trees, all so far away from her now, receding in the trenches of her life. Often, these thoughts made her wonder where the tin soldier might be from, how he ended up in her daughter’s sleepy hands, singing his sad, unknowable songs every dusk. But then a neighbor would stop by with a request for aniseed or eggs, or with news of aggressions near the borders—borders, she’d think then, what a concept!—and her thoughts of lost lands would scatter, and she would forget.
With the day’s work done, with tired bones and aching backs, but somehow satisfied with all that, the whole family would gather around the fireplace and listen to the soldier’s melancholy tune. Ma would thumb her mother’s necklace and think about the orchard in the house she’d left behind, the father’s house. And the soldier would sing all night long, never tiring, never pausing. They still didn’t understand the language, but, in time, they started picking up clusters of syllables and filling them with meaning of their own. There was “mountain” and “promise” and “come back.” Soon, they made up stories about the soldier’s origin: a broken homeland, a forgotten lover, a friendship lost to war.
In the End
When the conquerors came from their foreign land beyond the border, the family thought these men spoke the singing soldier’s tongue—and did they look a bit alike, with the hue of their skin, the handsome curls, the delicate length of their fingers? How strange, the ways of the world.
They didn’t know what the conquerors were saying, but eventually learned to understand them well enough. They picked up: “papers” and “ancestors” and “this land.” This land, what? Pa wondered. Surely, the conquerors meant this land was theirs, that it had always been theirs. But how could land belong to anyone?
They were allowed to stay in the house for a while, made to work the land on the conquerors’ behalf. Pa and Lilia ploughed the fields and planted the seed and then waited and waited, watching the rain fall from the shallow skies, mending their tools and rewelding their broken ploughs, and later they harvested the conquerors’ crops just as they used to their own before. But Pa would pause every now and then, dry his forehead with his sleeve or push his fingers against his closed eyes and say: “It’s not the same working under someone’s boot.” And then he wouldn’t speak for hours.
Ma suffered from the dreaming sickness she’d had as a child, but which had gone away after she’d gotten married. She would dream with her eyes wide open for days on end, the life in her eyes flickering, now bright, now dim. When she finally woke up, she would tell them about the places she’d been to in her dreams: a lake so small you could empty it out with a teaspoon; a ship stranded in the desert; pubescent girls scattering feathers out of moving trains; a milk so sweet it drove men mad.
Soon, the conquerors moved them out of the big house and into the small shed in the yard. Pa put the tin soldier on a shelf above the stove and again they gathered around every evening, huddled close after a long day’s work. Lilia would translate the fragments she understood. “Honey,” the soldier’s songs said, and “red, red poppies,” and “this land.”
The soldier never stopped filling their nights with singing. Not as Lilia grew thin and then thinner, not as Ma fell into her dreams for longer and longer, until the life in her eyes flickered one night and was extinguished the next. They buried her in the clearing where Pa had left the soldier’s coffer, all that time ago, in a previous life.
After Ma died, Pa and Lilia were finally driven from the land they used to love as if it were their own. Lilia took her father by the hand and squeezed it as he looked back onto the fields, the trees, the big house. “It’s land,” she said, and then waved her arm towards the forest and the hills that lay beyond it, and at the yellow sky above it all. “It’s only land.”
They took with them the coffer, filled with a handful of things: Ma’s necklace, their papers, the tin soldier, a steel knife, a smuggled pistol, an extra pair of boots. They lived in the woods for some time, on beds of soft green, under the paling light of the stars. And the soldier, the soldier sang them to sleep every night. His songs said: “Lakes,” and “pianos,” and “roses made of tin.”
When a group of conquering men descended on Pa early one morning, shouting and gesturing with the tips of their bayonets, Lilia hid in the forest. She thought the men came to take away the coffer that held her family’s last possessions, but they were not interested in that. She watched as the men strung her father up a tree until he stopped fighting and all the light went out, and all she could think was: What a curious, curious thing men are. After the men went away, Lilia came out of her hiding, hugged the coffer tight, and fell asleep under the soles of her father’s feet.
When she woke in the dark, all the stars gone out and her father’s feet in the sky, she struck the ground with her fists until she bled and cold soil stuck to her knuckles. Then, she built a fire. She used her family’s papers as kindling, wrapped Ma’s necklace around her left wrist, threw her old boots away and put on the new. Last, she fed the wooden coffer to the flames. When the embers shone bright and red, Lilia hid the soldier in her palm and held him close to her heart. Then, she melted the soldier on the knife’s blade over the blazing embers, fashioned him into a bullet using a crude clay mold, and loaded him into her pistol.
“You will kill the next man I see,” she told the bullet.
Before meeting the next man’s chest, the bullet sang. “This land,” it said. “This land, this land.”
Natalia Theodoridou is the World Fantasy Award-winning and Nebula-nominated author of over a hundred stories published in Nightmare, Uncanny, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, F&SF, and elsewhere. Find him at www.natalia-theodoridou.com, or follow @natalia_theodor on Twitter.
More Quick Ways to Break Your Heart:
The Law of the Conservation of Hair, Rachael K. Jones – That it has long been our joke that our hair lengths are inversely proportional, and cannot exceed the same cumulative mass it possessed on the day we met; that our faith was bound by this same Law, your exuberant pantheism balanced against my quiet nihilism; that this Law does not apply to beards.
Serein, Cat Hellisen – It’s always about the ones who disappear. I’ve imagined it endlessly: what Claire must have thought as she packed her bag. How leaving is easy, even if you lie and say oh god it’s hard it’s hard it’s hard. Make a clean break, leave everything, let loose your claim to possession: this is my house, this is my bed, these are my albums not shelved alphabetically because I tried and never could keep the world orderly, this is my little library built out of gifts and second-hand forgotten paperbacks.
Come My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale, Sunny Moraine – Tell me the story about the light and how it used to fall through the rain in rainbows. Tell me the story about those times when the rain would come and the world would turn sweet and green and thick with the smell of wet dirt and things gently rotting, when the birds would chuckle with pleasure to themselves at the thought of a wriggling feast fleeing the deeper floods.