– By Michael Poeltl Fort
A story about the wars we waged as children, when there was snow in December, and courage found its footing in the heat of battle.
She had become a casualty of war; in less time then it took to free your hands from sweat-soaked mittens. She was an innocent; put down by a thoughtless and heartless enemy in waiting - in her own front yard.
I barely made it to safety myself, the horror of witnessing my mother take hit after hit as I climbed the stairs to greet her was paralyzing. I watched it all happen in slow-motion; one in the sternum, one in the shoulder, and a final indignity finding its mark on her forehead. I froze in place - eyes set in a dead stare with hers, my mother, her body twisted like a snow fence struggling to stay upright against a powerful storm. She was sent backwards, back into the house, the plate of cookies and thermos of hot chocolate she’d been carrying collided with the icy porch. There was a thump and a yelp as she landed on the tile floor, the screen door released, slammed in front of me and I lost visual on mom.
Regret enveloped me. Had I brought this upon her? Had she taken what hammering was meant for me?
“Assassins!” I cried. My team poked their heads over the open roof of our snow fort which stood just a few feet from my position. One, then another rose their goggled heads, as snowballs screamed past. They slammed into the thick, high walls erected to protect against just such an attack. I saw my friends play out as a game of whack-a-mole in that moment; each of the six popping up and ducking down, eager to return a volley of their own, but still reluctant to catch a snowball in the head, to fall as my mother had, to the cruelty of this enemy we knew all too well.
I lunged into the relative safety of my fort. Thoughts of my mother’s sacrifice fresh in my mind.
“I see you,” I heard my mother shout from the screen door to the vagrants of
Rupert Avenue; the street thugs whose
Christmas light-lined homes were not so different from our own, but whose
temperament was more callous. Incredibly another snowball crashed against the
brick beside the front door. Who did they think they were? She’s was an adult! Insufferable! I picked from the
pile of snowballs in our arsenal and whipped one at the group, landing hard
against a neighbour’s parked car on the other side of the street. A clear miss:
I slunk behind our mighty walls and looked to my friends.
“They have no honour.” I told them. “They won’t just be throwing snowballs for long.”
“What do we do?” asked Kevin, as his eye glasses slid down his long red nose.
“I’m not abandoning our fort.” explained Seth. “It took all yesterday to build it.” He searched for courage amongst the group. “Guys, we even poured water on the snow to harden it. This is a good fort.”
Water, I think.
“Do we still have any water?” I asked. Seth reached for the thermos of warm tap water. He shook it and handed it to me. It was half full. I screwed off the cap and drizzled the steamy liquid over our collection of snow balls.
“Nice,” said Earl. He is our best shot, and I would depend on him to hit his targets with the hybrid snowballs once they had completely frozen. I nodded at him. He returned the sentiment.
“We use the regular snowballs to flush them out of the snow bank,” I explained, the
Rupert Avenue kids had huddled behind the
massive snowplough embankments which ran the length of our street save where
our fathers had shovelled themselves free from their driveways. “We need bait
though.” Everyone looked to Tom.
“Not Tom,” Sonny told us in no uncertain terms. “I’ll go.”
John slowly raised his head over the four foot wall. An explosion of ice and snow erupted above us and John returned with his goggles covered in the white stuff. Freddy wiped them off for him with his woollen mittens. “Two are on the fringe of the snow banks.” John reported. “Either side of the driveway.”
“Do we know how many are out there?” Earl asked, as he adjusted his toque.
“How many are usually with them? About five, I think.” Freddy counted on his fingers under his thick mitts, mouthing to himself our enemy’s names.
“We’re eight.” I reminded them. “And now we have ice balls.”
“And they’re cut off from any supplies; like water. So their snow balls will just be snow balls.” Earl wore a cruel grin. We all liked where that was going, all but Tom.
Another volley hit our fort and I felt the vibration through my jacket as I rested my back against the sturdy wall. They had good arms. They were a year older then most of us. Sonny was their age but he, like the rest of us, defended our own. We were the Elm Road Warriors. They: the
Reckless. We’d done battle before. Earl still bore the scar above his left
eyebrow that Jiminy Cricket gave him during a mid-summers cornfield fight.
Jiminy was what we called him on account of the whistle his teeth made when he
talked. Jiminy didn’t like the name, but then, we didn’t much like jiminy.
Earl picked up an ice ball and further formed it with his hands. Mittens won’t do when throwing an ice ball. Too sticky, too clumsy. Earl knew this; he also knew that the heat of the hands further pack the balls, and quicken the freezing process. These would be deadly. He had a dozen beautifully sculpted spheres stacked next to him. If it were summer and these were crab apples, they’d include thorns, but summer has been covered by three feet of packing snow, and so we used physics to our advantage rather then pure malice, though that was questionable.
“I could run to the pine tree and get their attention, draw them out,” explained Sonny. “Then Earl could slam them with the ice balls.”
“One in the face is all it should take.” Earl had a ball in each hand. Seth continued to build on our munitions store taking from the endless supply of snow behind our wall. John was fingering a hole through the wall so he might have a better chance at tracking the enemy movement without becoming a target again. Freddy shook his mittens out, getting the clumps of snow to fall off the wool. Sonny re-tied his boots so not to stumble when he became our distraction. Kevin was fighting a losing battle against his glasses as they fogged up after each breath. Tom shook nervously, his arms wrapped around his quivering knees. All of us were breathing heavily. The rising breath animated around us must have seemed like we were burning a fire within the walls to an outsider.
“Okay,” I told them. “We’re ready?” I get a nod from everyone but Tom. I knew he was looking forward to the cookies and hot chocolate portion of the day. But that would come - once a victory had been claimed, it would come. I had not forgotten what they’d done to my mother, and if it had happened to have slipped their minds, I would make them remember.
A wind had picked up from the west. One which felt like it could be accompanied by flurries. That would have made it interesting. It was a cold wind, and we knew that the Reckless would be considering a full frontal attack on our fortress if only to get out of the cold. Earl warmed his hands between his thighs.
“It’s now or never.” He cautioned. He nodded to Sonny who nodded back, taking his mark. I noticed Sonny look to Tom and reveal his monster grin which meant all would be alright. I too took comfort in that, picked up a snow ball and stood to fire at the snow bank along with Fred, Kevin, John and Seth as Sonny ran to the pines. In a relentless volley, we took the top off the east side of the bank and one of the Reckless rushed out into the open, digging snow out of the neck of his parka. That’s when Earl struck.
WHAM! Kid went down like a sack of potatoes. I was sure I’d seen a line of blood fly upwards where the ice ball had smashed into his nose. Shouts of victory rose up out of our small fort and we narrowly missed being hit by their response, slipping back behind the relative safety of our walls.
“Was that Jiminy?!” Seth asked excitedly, his cheeks red and lips chapped.
“Not sure,” Earl replied. “But I think I heard a whistle when it hit!” We laughed. This was going perfectly to plan. I peaked around to see where Sonny had gotten to. He gave me a thumbs-up and was busy making snow balls of his own.