The boy who cried
"Phew!" Christine said. "Done."
She'd just written a long letter. She folded the paper on the desk in her room. She slid it into an envelope and handed it to her dad.
"Dad, I'm trusting you with this, for Santa Claus."
"A letter for Santa Claus?"
"Yes, I wrote to him so he knows what I want for Christmas. You're really sure you want to send it for me?"
Dad looked at his daughter, very astonished.
"Ah, yeah, if you like."
And his little girl headed out.
Her dad opened the letter with her mom, and read. Christine hadn't asked for a doll. Or new clothes, or toys. She wanted a little brother, a little brother of about four years old if possible.
Her parents looked at each other in silence.
In the early afternoon, her mom asked our little friend to go to the village. There were some things she needed her to buy. It was important. She entrusted her with an empty grocery bag and the money.
"You can buy whatever you like with the change," she told her.
Christine, always happy to run an errand, got on her bike and left with the short grocery list.
Remember that our little friend had lived the ten years of her life in the forest. She didn't ever go to school, except in June, when she wrote the school's final exams. She did her schoolwork with her mom. Sometimes she also helped her dad with his work as a lumberjack, in the middle of the forest. She didn't have either a brother or a sister, and wished she did. But then she was able to talk to and understand some forest animals.
For nearly two hours, she rode on a terrible dirt road covered in mud from the rain in the days before. She was then in sight of the village.
There, instead of following, as she usually did, the lower road, she chose to follow the higher road where she had a nice view over the river valley, the country houses and the surrounding area.
The weather was beautiful and very hot. Christine had on her old, well worn, jean overalls and white gym shoes that weren't so white anymore. Her long brown braids framed her smiling face.
She followed alongside a red brick wall that surely hid some beautiful property. From the other side of the wall, she heard a child crying.
She stopped right away, and put her feet to the ground. A little upset by the sound but still curious, she set her bike down. She hopped over a little ditch, jumped up and hooked her hands onto the top of the wall. With that, she was able to climb up and look over it and see what was going on. As soon as she was astride the wall, she saw, leaning against the bricks inside the yard, a boy who looked to be about four or five. Hot tears were streaming down his face.
He was sitting in the sun, wearing only shorts, no shirt, no shoes. In his hands, he held a red ball. A little further on was a big house, painted white.
"Why are you crying?" asked our friend.
The boy got up at once, looked over at the girl and ran off towards the house.
"Darn," she said to herself. "I've frightened him off."
She climbed back over the wall, crossed the ditch, took her bike and made her way to the store in the village.
On her way back, Christine returned to the same spot. It was partly out of curiosity but at the same time out of generosity. She wanted to know more.
She followed alongside the brick wall and, once again, heard the boy crying.
Putting her bike down in the tall grass, she leaped over the ditch. She climbed the wall. This time she was quieter and more careful. She chose to jump down from the wall just next to the child, so she could try to console him.
The little boy was frightened for a minute and then got up. Listening to the reassuring words of our friend, he sat back down in the grass.
Christine had three candies in the bib pocket of her overalls. Remember that when she trusted her with the shopping list and the money, her mother had allowed her to do what she liked with the change. She'd chosen to buy three big cherry-flavoured lollypops. She slipped one hand into her pocket, and held a lollypop out to him. Walking over, she promised to share the others afterwards.
He happily took it and unwrapped it.
"What's your name?" asked the girl.
"Damien. And you?"
"Thanks," said Damien, drying his tears. "You're nice."
"And you're as nice as anything. Why are you crying?"
"I'm crying because I'm sad," said the little boy.
"Why so sad, Damien?"
"I'm sad because my mommy is dead."
Oh my goodness, thought our friend. She put her hand on the little guy's shoulder. What could she say to him?
"When did it happen?"
"A year ago. And my daddy, he's always gone on a trip and he, he got married to a new mommy. My new mommy never comes out to play with me. I stay here by myself all the time."
"You want to toss the ball, just us two?"
"Yes!" said the little boy. I always played here, along the wall, with my nice mommy."
The little girl tossed the ball with him a few times. Once, when the kid ran after his ball, our friend noticed a big bruise up around his shoulder blade.
"What's on your back? They look like bruises. Did you fall?"
"No," Damien said, his voice starting to break and two tears running down his face. "My new mommy hit me."
"Does she do that often?"
"She hits you?" Christine repeated, shocked. "She hits you that hard? They can't do that to children. My goodness," said the girl softly, "that can't go on."
At that moment, from the house came a voice at once sharp and aggressive.
"Damien! Come here immediately. Hurry up."
"I have to go. You'll come back?"
"I swear," promised our friend. "Here, take the last two lollypops."
She gave him a little hug then went along the wall until she came to the main entry and went out the iron gate. She went back to find her bike and headed along the road for home.
Christine thought more and more about the little boy. All day long. In the evening, she talked to her owl, Chachou. Remember that our little friend had the ability to talk to a few animals and to understand them. Chachou, her oldest friend, had helped her learn to use her powers from the time she was about two or three years old.
Chachou explained to Christine that he knew the house very well because there was a castle behind it. A big castle, with towers and lots of mice to eat in the cellars.
Our friend was surprised. She had no idea that such a construction was there. She thought that the next time she saw him, she would ask Damien to show it to her.
The next day, she worked with her dad all day long, collecting logs and stacking them up the length of the dirt road. There they could load some onto a trailer for a customer who needed them soon. It was hard work, at times under the blaze of the sun, at times under the rain. They'd never become rich this way but she understood that she had to help him out. This she happily did.
Two days later, she was able to return to the village. Now she had all the more reason to go because her parents asked her to pick up some things from the store. She followed the length of the road that led to the little settlement, did her shopping and headed back along the high road home.
Setting her bike down, she made sure it was well hidden in the bushes near the little boy's house. On the other side of the wall, the little boy was leaning against the red bricks, again crying. Christine climbed the wall, straddling it and jumping down near Damien. This time he was not startled.
"You're crying again," said Christine quietly.
"I played here every day with my mommy. I loved her a lot," he said, between tears.
As she listened to this, our friend could feel tears welling up in her eyes and running down her cheeks. Then she got a hold of herself.
"Is there a great big castle behind your house?"
"Yes," Damien said. "But I can't go there."
"Can we go up to it and take a look?"
"Yes, I'll show you. Come! And then maybe with you, I could walk there. I'd really like that. I went there a lot with my nice mommy. We played hide and seek there."
They went all the way around the country houses and, behind them, Christine noticed the ruins of a dark and foreboding structure. Two grey towers, one on the left and one on the right, flanked an enormous door that closed with three sliding bolts as thick as her arm.
The little girl slid them open.
Behind the door, there was a heavy, ancient edifice. Our friend, always curious, entered the courtyard of the castle. Two trees cast shade over it.
The main building had a cellar. It could be accessed by going down a set of worn steps. The ground floor was cold and empty. It was largely made up of a big room paved with flagstones. The centrepiece of the room was a great chimney.
The rough floorboards of the second floor made up the ceiling of the ground floor. They must have been very old. The third floor, all in ruins, didn't have a roof.
She found herself up there with the boy, when she heard the voice of the stepmother.
"Damien! Where are you? Damien!"
"My goodness," the little boy said, worried, "my new mommy sounds really angry."
Christine and her little friend went down the stairs. The woman saw Damien. Maybe she saw Christine, maybe not. She shouted,
"You're in the castle again. Fine. Stay in there."
She pushed the heavy door shut and slid the three bolts closed.
"Ma'am," called the little girl, "you can't lock us in here like that!"
Did the boy's stepmother hear her or did she not hear her? Either way, the two children became prisoners in the old medieval castle.
Damien started crying again. Christine knelt before him. She wanted to be at his level to dry his tears. Then she explained that her father often told her that, when in a difficult situation, it is okay to cry a bit. That helped ease his tears. Afterwards, though, she said, it is essential to think and start to sort things out to get out of the situation.
"But you, you're big. You'll manage to leave, and me, I'll end up here all alone."
"Listen to me, Damien," our friend replied. "I've dreamed of having a little brother like you. If I had one, I'd never abandon him, let alone in a place like this. We'll both get out of here, or I'll stay here with you. Now, c'mon. We've got to find a way out of here."
Christine first explored the two towers, to the left and right of the entry hall. She knew that she wouldn't be able to open the front door, even with her penknife. The two towers, sadly, had no way out. Their only windows were the arrow slits where, back in the day, the archers shot their arrows from. These were far too narrow to squeeze through.
She then combed over the courtyard and the high stone walls that surrounded them. Climbing up there seemed dangerous. She returned to the main building. Here, on the second floor, just as on the third, there were no windows.
They were really, well and truly, prisoners. The heat was getting unbearable. It must have been nearly three o'clock in the afternoon. At noon, Christine had nibbled on a sandwich she'd brought with her. Now she was feeling hungry again. She turned towards Damien. He had been too upset and so wasn't feeling hungry. Fear was the only thing on his mind.
"Don't worry about anything. She will never leave us here long," Christine said, trying to make him feel better.
"I don't know about that," Damien said, almost moaning. "We can't tell."
Time passed slowly. No one came to see them.
Towards the middle of the afternoon, thick and dark clouds gathered in the sky. Soon, a violent storm started, complete with thunder and lightning.
In an instant, everything was soaking wet, including the two children. Damien, still shirtless and wet with rain, shivered with cold. Christine took off her own top and gave it to the little boy to keep him warm. He started to warm up but now she was shivering herself under the cold rain. She had the idea that a real big sister would protect and even sacrifice herself for her little brother.
As she continued to look around her, scanning the area, she spotted two iron bars jutting out of the wall in the courtyard. Our friend figured that she could catch onto them, get up onto the surrounding wall and call for help.
Christine managed to grab the first bar and pull herself up. Wedging herself against the stone wall to climb up, she could then stand on her tiptoes. Good thing she was wearing her white gym shoes. From there she grabbed the second iron bar. All of this under the pouring rain. Unfortunately, the bar had worked itself loose. It moved. Our friend lost balance and fell back into the courtyard. As she picked herself up she noticed that she'd torn the right pant leg of her overalls, from her ankle to her knee. At the same place, there was a long gash. It bled. Damien started crying again.
"You're too sensitive," she said as she consoled him. "It didn't hurt as much as all that, you know."
She got back up and wondered, now in some pain, how they'd get out of that place. To add to it all, if she didn't get on the road soon, she would not get back home before sunset. That was key because her parents always wanted her to get home before nightfall.
It was raining buckets. The storm, a violent downpour, was forming immense puddles of cold water. The two children shivered in their wet outfits.
Christine noticed that the water from the courtyard drained by way of a narrow staircase towards a dark cellar. She headed down the stairs, slowly. Damien, too upset to stay on his own, took her hand and followed.
They came to a sizable crypt. It was dark. In the middle of this, there was a slab outfitted with a big ring. Here was where the water was draining, through the gaps around the slab into the depths beyond. It struck Christine that, who knows, there might be a passage or a tunnel that could bring them to the moat outside.
She tried to open the hatchway. Far too heavy, unfortunately. She could hardly budge it. Then something came to mind that she'd seen her father do once in his work. Fetching the iron bar that had come loose and was lying in the courtyard, she fitted it through the big ring. This worked as a pivot with the bar as a lever. With Damien's help, she managed to shift the slab enough to move it to the side.
The opening gave out onto a well that dropped down into complete darkness. Damien shivered as much from fear as from the cold. A rusty iron ladder disappeared down into the darkness.
"Let's go," our friend decided.
She helped Damien to carefully place his feet on the rungs of the ladder. They slowly made their way down the ladder, at a speed the little boy felt comfortable with. At the bottom, they found a tunnel. They sank ankle-deep in mud.
"C'mon," Christine said, as she took Damien by the hand. "We'll explore and see if we can get out this way."
It wasn't completely dark. There was some lichen growing on the walls and on the ceiling of the narrow corridor. Phosphorescent lichen. It gave off a faint glow. In the half-dark the two children found themselves in, this was enough so not to fall and to help know where they were.
The two trudged through the mud and shivered with cold. Christine was particularly cold. They came up to a door, closed though not locked. They opened it slowly and walked into a vast underground room of the castle that had been completely invisible from the outside. The mud extended over the entire area.
In the room was a large, dark wardrobe. When our friend tried to open one of the drawers or doors, she felt like they were falling apart. The wardrobe seemed to be completely rotten. Disgusted, she stepped back and headed over to the door that separated the first room from a second.
There, there were enormous mushrooms growing on the floor and on the walls. A sticky yellow liquid came out of them. More than that, there was a ghastly smell.
Christine took care as she went forwards. After three steps, she told Damien she'd give him a piggyback ride and he climbed onto her back. She walked between the mushrooms, slogging through the mud.
A third door was hard to open but finally did. This time they'd come upon a dry cellar, with cobwebs everywhere.
Damien got down off her back. He pressed himself up against her. He held her tightly by the hand and clung to her overalls to be sure that he didn't lose her.
Christine moved forwards slowly. Suddenly she spotted a giant spider that came towards them from the shadows.
"Get back on my back, Damien."
They retraced their steps a few paces. Then, Christine noticed some bricks piled against the wall and picked one up. She stepped towards the spider and threw the brick with all of her might. But the spider moved and our friend missed her throw.
The creature continued advancing towards the children. At that point, Christine told Damien to hold on tight. With one hand she held on to the arm he had around her. With the other, she covered their heads. Then she ran across the cellar. They made it across the room to the next door, opening and closing it behind them as quickly as she could.
Christine held her breath as she carefully checked that no regular-sized spider had climbed onto Damien. She combed through his hair, checked his back, his belly. Nothing. She then patted herself down as well and didn't find anything. The courageous big sister had protected her "little brother" very well.
The room they were in now was every bit as long and wide as the others. It was also a little darker. They found, right at the end of the hall, a staircase running up along the length of the wall. It led to the floor above. They started to get hopeful. It crushed their spirits to see that the ceiling was sealed by another enormous slab. No chance of moving that.
No way out here. There was no other door. They started to despair.
"I'm starting to wonder how we're going to get out of here," our friend said, feeling defeated.
Just as she was saying this, she felt a cool current of air on her skin.
The breeze had to be coming from somewhere, thought the girl. There must be a crack, a hole in the wall somewhere around here that leads outside, she said to herself.
The cellar they were in now was made up of a series of recesses, almost like cubbyholes. The recesses were like what some people had in their wine cellars, where they'd store their bottles of wine. Christine scoured each of these, pushing and prodding with her fingertips, hoping to find something that could lead to a way out. Maybe just maybe one of these could lead to a passageway.
They could hear nothing, neither the sound of the rain nor the storm. Damien, standing stiff with fear in the middle of the room, waited for Christine to finish her investigation.
A meowing broke the silence.
The girl, surprised, took a step back. In one of the cubbyholes, there was a cat watching the two children. Christine went towards it. Seeing as how she could speak to animals, as you know, she talked to the cat.
He told her that he knew a way to get out. He showed her a small space, a gap in the wall, unfortunately too narrow for her to slip into. The cat himself only just passed through. Our friend could see outside the castle by way of this gap. At times, a bolt of lightning lit up the space and outlined the landscape of grass and flowers, washed in raindrops.
Christine took hold of a pointed rock and set to hammering on the bricks with all her might to break and enlarge the passage.
This took a lot of time and was very hard, exhausting really. Damien helped as much as he could, sweeping up the chips and the fragments of brick that fell from the blows of his friend. The girl, lying flat on her belly in the cubbyhole, worked hard. After an hour, the hole had become large enough to allow them to squeeze through the opening.
"Damien, we're going to get out through here. We're probably going to fall into the moat around the castle. That's the ditch around the walls, on the outside of the property itself. Do you want to go in front or should I go first?"
The boy hesitated.
"I'll go. I'll go through first," our friend decided. "Watch closely. You need to do as I do. I'm going to go down into the moat. I hope it's not too deep. Then I'll call to you. You'll jump into my arms. You get it? Don't be afraid. Be brave."
Christine lay down and crawled backwards. Her legs exited first, then her belly and, finally, she hung on with her hands. She let herself fall and landed in the moat, that was full of muddy water because of the storm.
She got back up on her feet. The sludge came up to her knees. She called to Damien.
"C'mon, you can do it. Jump. You'll end up in the mud but, too bad, you can wash up later."
The little kid jumped. She caught him in her arms but his weight pushed her off balance and the two of them fell into the mud. The two climbed out, dripping wet with dirty and foul-smelling water. The little boy didn't cry. They started to laugh and looked at each other, muddy from head to foot. But free.
They walked around the castle and Christine found her bicycle. Taking her bike by one hand and Damien in the other, she went into the forest with the little boy.
When she arrived home, night had already fallen. Her parents saw their daughter arriving home all dirty, soaking wet, and shivering with cold. Damien stepped forwards, unsteady, beside her.
Christine told them the whole story of their adventure. The parents of our friend phoned the police. A patrol car went by Damien's stepmother's house. She laughed off the idea that her little boy could have been dying of fear, or of cold, or of hunger in the castle.
This cruel woman was brought to court and charged with hitting and neglecting a child. She ended up in prison and could no longer be in control of Damien. Because the father was too often absent and continued to travel, a distant cousin, a good person, decided to adopt him. She readied herself to welcome the little guy.
While waiting for this date to approach, Christine's parents were asked to look after the boy. They accepted. Seeing as though their house wasn't big, they installed a cot beside their daughter's bed. After taking a shower and having had a good meal, Damien went to bed. He fell asleep right away. Christine was such a good big sister that she tucked him in and watched over him as he slept.
When Chachou the owl landed on the window sill and saw Damien, he too regarded him with tenderness. Just then our friend told him, loud enough for her parents to hear it:
"I have a little brother for a few days! I have a little brother for a few days! Thank you Santa Claus!
You see, nothing is impossible for Santa Claus."
Translation : Andrew Gordon Middleton