January slid forward full of icicles and spiced cider as the army began to move out. Jacob and Criven first heard the news from Criven’s father, who was a day laborer called out on Sunday night to help clear the roads so the infantry could get by.
Monday morning saw the two boys, one with orange hair and the other with hair so blond it was almost white, running down muddy stiled lanes to the shriveled apple tree that stood at the main crossroads.
As the red-backed soldiers came into view, Jacob scrabbled up the apple tree, shaking loose handfuls of dry leaves. Criven stood in snow up to his knees for a while longer, craning his neck, and then followed. The day laborers stood in drunken lines on the side of the road and watched the army creep out of the township of Tilley Minaside, Cornwall.
The two bare-ankled boys watched with red knuckles and open mouths at the iron-shaven, black-booted, heavily armed infantry. Spread to four a row, and stretched to about forty rows, the Lithpang Infantry was like a red dragon snaking its way through the frosty Tilley Minaside hills and through the sparkling sunlight of midwinter.
“I want to be soldier when I grow up,” Jacob said enviously.
Criven nodded with fervor.
Apple trees swayed in the crisp cider wind and the dry skeletal peach orchard shuddered in the winter sun. Jacob and Criven stayed in the apple tree until the backs of the final red row faded from sight and a tired Mr. Montier called Criven down from the tree.
“Time f’ dinner,” he said, motioning with his muck-clustered shovel. Jacob twisted out of the tree as well, and called to Criven’s retreating back that he’d go find him after supper.
“Yeah, sure thing,” Criven shouted back, his father’s hand on his shoulder securely.
But after supper night was already falling in an ocean of hard dark blue as a field of stars prickled around the heavy moon. The yellowish light fell on crisp January snow as clouds began to gather. Old ladies with bad knees proclaimed common knowledge: That a big one was comin’ tonight and snow would be fallin’ and to batten down the hatches.
Jacob sat crosslegged on his hay-stuffed mattress and peeked through the rip in the oiled paper that covered the small window above his bed. Outside was a pregnant moon and new fallen snow, soft in the light, and whispering skeletons of trees that swayed when frosty wind came down from the mountains.
He watched and watched and saw the stars, singing to the moon, and the thin waving tree limbs in the steely fresh night until he felt his heart could burst from the cold and the utter, complete possibility that lay on the heart of that new snow. His chest felt like there were pieces, shards of the moon and the stars wedged inside. Such possibility ran humming through that night, such salty fresh delight.
Jacob wanted dearly to unpin the oiled paper and run barefoot through the flakey snow with his arms flung out, just because he could. There was a warm hearth downstairs, before which sat his parents, and a cold dark night at his feet. He was young, he was intelligent, and there was an infinity laid out before him.
Criven insisted the next morning on climbing the icicled pear tree to the Sergeant’s window and replacing the man’s tobacco snuff with the rabbit droppings Licey Bloethard found between her snow peas. But Jacob wanted to watch the rest of the army march out of Tilley Minaside.
They had an arm-wrestling match, which Criven won because he was six days older, and set off at a red-cheeked laughing run toward the boarding house which Sergeant Lithpang had claimed for his men.
It was a black-sided sooty two-storied place and its original inhabitants were long gone, having sold the property to Mayor Bloethard and moved away. Bloethard rented the boarding house to the infantry at a lowered price and with this money bought barrels of finely aged bourbon. Jacob began shivering as they stood beneath the Sergeant’s window in the snow. His shoes were made of supple leather but had been his father’s many years ago and bore many age wrinkles like the face of an old man—and also slits, made by running through blackberry brambles on a hot July afternoon.
The half-melted snow seeped in through the cuts and onto Jacob’s bare skin. He tucked his hands under his arms to stop the shivering, and relaxed himself only when Criven had unfastened the sash while kneeling on the sill, and held out a hand from within the green-curtained office.
Of course, Criven accidentally knocked the Sergeant’s pipe off the oak desk onto the floor, and as they were scrabbling out the window the door burst open.
Potbellied Sergeant Lithpang roared when he saw the two skinny unjacketed peasant boys half out the window, but by the time he was across the room he couldn’t do anything. The window was too small, and the boys were already across the snow-blanketed meadow. Sergeant Lithpang hadn’t seen their faces anyway.
Criven and Jacob sprinted across the Wheatherwind Commons, laughing in full aching-chest hilarity. Their feet were mostly frozen, and their ungloved hands bright red and raw, and the only covering on their backs were the twin green-wool shirts Criven’s aunt Nillia had knitted for them. But they’d played the most wonderful trick a young boy could think of: They’d mocked a grown man about one of his favorite pastimes. Smoking.
They could do anything they wanted. Though it wasn’t without punishment—both Mr. Montier and Jacob’s father always seemed to know when anything bad was done—Criven and Jacob didn’t care.
Criven was going to be a scientist when he grew up, though his father was a laborer. Jacob wanted to be a mathematician and a soldier, too, and they paid no attention to the fact that both dreams were improbable.
Before the army relocated completely, Jacob made sure to steal a private’s cap and tuck it under the wormy dogwood root on the edge of the peach orchard. He knew it was bad but also justified it by telling himself (and Criven) that it would be the beginning of the fulfillment of his soldier dream.
Jacob sniggered into his hand when he saw a bareheaded soldier walking in the red lines. The soldier’s hair was orange like his own, and he looked incredibly young. Jacob whistled at the last marchers and waved his new cap at them before Criven yanked his hand down and hissed, “Don be so suspicious-like!”
Finally the army was gone, and with it the greatest flames that burnished Jacob’s dream. But the embers were still present, and they were glowing. Standing in his home’s doorway, Jacob’s father told Jacob’s mother that their son might nurse his soldier dream for a very long time. And a dream in a young boy is a beautiful thing indeed.
As the red dragon faded from view, Criven and Jacob leaped down from the shaky apple tree and ran whooping across the snowy plains toward home. Their cheeks were bright pink, and their knuckles turning blue, but their hearts beat fiercely inside them, and their legs moved at a flash.
There were shards of the moon and stars inside them, and the boys were invincible.