Sitting in the kitchen that last evening Matthew laboriously scratched out his lessons on his slate holding it up for his mother's fleeting approval before wiping them away and starting again. He looked up as his big brother Michael banged the door open and walked in shaking the water from his hair and smiling his thanks at Marilla when she handed him a towel. "It's raining cats and dogs out there," he said when he was dry and the towel quite wet. "Have you got another one handy, I reckon Pa will need one too." Michael crossed over to the fire and stood warming himself for a moment before their mother shooed him out of the way. He resisted and pulled her in for a hug, "smells delicious, Ma. What is it?"
"Roast lamb, as you know quite well having slaughtered the animal yourself last week," said his mother fondly. Her tone shifting, she scolded Marilla for her inattention, "don't let the beans overcook, girl. I want everything perfect tonight of all nights." Marilla caught a brief smile from Michael before she turned away. Matthew saw the whole thing play out and wondered how things would be afterwards; if their ma was curt with Marilla tonight, she'd be in a right state tomorrow.
There was never any doubt that Michael Cuthbert was the favoured son. It was accepted by his younger siblings without resentment because he was so supportive of them too. He would incorporate them into their mother's good wishes with such charm that she would acknowledge them. Matthew knew without thinking about it she did it begrudgingly and only because she sought to please her golden boy.
"Wish you didn't have to go," she'd said to him over dinner.
"Don't be like that, you know I have to, Ma."
"I know. The money will come in handy and you deserve a bit of an adventure away from us now you're grown, but it don't make it any easier to say farewell. I'll miss you something fierce."
"Course you will," Michael replied with that grin of his and she swatted him away before pulling him close and wiping a tear from her eye with the corner of her apron.
Matthew always remembered that particular evening because it was the last time the family was truly happy. They'd sat reminiscing and even their taciturn father joined in the fun. Michael pulled out his fiddle and Matthew and his mother and Marilla and their father had jigged around the kitchen. Marilla being taller fit into their father's arms somewhat more easily than Matthew did into his mother's, but they made do just the same. It was fun to dance faster, faster, faster in time with the music until they faltered and fell into a chair laughing and out of breath. Later Michael came to tuck him into bed, though really Matthew was too old for that anymore, "just because it's my last night, Mattero," Michael said. Matthew loved him for it and hugged him tight drinking in his smoky aroma wishing he didn't have to leave.
The next day they'd watched him stride down the laneway the lush verges shiny from the rain the night before. Michael's boots sunk slightly into the mud with each footstep until he'd turned the corner and was gone. Matthew had gazed at his distinctive foot prints for what seemed like ages until his mother called him away to get ready for school.
Until his dying day Matthew Cuthbert never forgot the way his mother folded in upon herself when she received the news.
A curt telegram informed them: Your son Michael Cuthbert has died Stop Effects to follow Stop.
Matthew rushed out to find his father in the fields and they'd run back to find Mrs Cuthbert curled up, catatonic, the red dirt staining her apron. They found out later that Michael had been involved in an industrial accident. It happens to the inexperienced they were told.
Their mother's reaction silenced their own; Matthew and Marilla went about their life without the space to acknowlege their grief until it became a habit.
"Have you seen Mrs Cuthbert?" Matthew overheard the women at church filing out after a particularly dull sermon.
"I did, she's consumed with grief the poor woman."
"Heartbroken," said another.
"She's lost her marbles, that's what," said her companion.
Marbles thought Matthew. What marbles? Did Michael give her some too like he had Matthew one afternoon up in the barn. He remembered it vividly though it had been some months earlier. He'd endured yet another hard day at school. Some boys were fine he supposed, but the Pye boys, Jeremy and Stephen delighted in using him as their punching bag; for no reason Matthew could ever determine.
He'd skulked home avoiding his parents who would only sigh and give him that look, the look of exasperation which was worse than any beating. Only Michael showed him any sympathy. He'd found Matthew in his favourite spot up in the loft behind the hay and rather than teasing had complimented him on his hiding skills. Even when he felt his most miserable Michael had a way of making him feel special. "Got something for you," he said pulling out a small leather bag and pouring the colourful glass orbs into Matthew's outstretched hands; cool and smooth to the touch. "The plan is you take these to school and make some friends," he explained. "You can do it Mattero, you show up at school with these and you become Mr Popular, easy peasy. Want to play, I bet you're a natural."
Michael's confidence in his abilities was overblown as Matthew played recklessly mistaking a lack of competitiveness for friendship. Thinking that if he beat his classmates, they'd dislike him; when in fact the opposite was the case. They preferred competition and respected those who provided it. Matthew played recklessly and lost most of his marbles over the course of the next few weeks. Sure, he'd win a few now and then, mostly by dint of good luck rather than skill, and just enough to keep him in the game; but his competitors did not respect or like him all that much and Michael's brilliant strategy backfired leaving him as friendless as ever. Now Matthew had a new reason to win. If he wanted his mother back, he needed those marbles.
It took some time. While his mother sank further into her melancholia, bit by bit withdrawing further from them all leaving Marilla to pick up her load. Poor Marilla, Matthew thought. He knew she suffered too, there was little joy in their life as she baked, scrubbed, laundered and tried to keep up with her schoolwork. It left no time for her and even less time for him. Their father would come in after a hard day in the field and grunt when Marilla served him his dinner. Grasping his spoon with a grubby dirt stained hand he'd gulp it down and go to see their mother who would not, could not acknowledge him.
Matthew was sure his plan had merit and that his hard-won marbles would make everything right again. His mother would be back at the hearth cooking and joking with them all. He just needed to win them back.
A change of tactic was required and instead of recklessly playing to lose, Matthew played more strategically with a flick here and a flick there winning marble after marble which his classmates handed over, reluctantly in some cases. After a particularly hard-fought game the Pye boys tried to beat their lost marbles out of him, but John Blythe and Toby Gillis defended him, telling the Pye boys he had won fair and square. He'd proudly taken his prizes home and stowed them safely in the treasure box he kept under his bed.
Eventually he believed he had enough and one bright spring day he crept into his mother's bedroom where she lay completely still looking blank eyed into the middle space like she had done for months. "Ma," he called gently. "Ma, I got your marbles for you. I did it to make you better see. I nearly lost them all, but I got 'em back so you'll be happy again."
His mother did not move.
"Ma, see look at them. I won 'em all. I'm giving you my marbles see. Now you can get better and we can go back to how it was before."
He took her hand in his covering his favourite green marble with her lax fingers, they threatened to roll out if he relaxed his grip. He lay there for some time in the gloomy bedroom watching the candle in its noiseless flighty dance.
"What are you doing boy?" his father interrupted. "Don't annoy her, let her rest," he said gruffly.
"I got her marbles back, the ones they say she lost," Matthew said disconsolately.
"What?" his father was confused. "What nonsense are you talking boy?"
"It was the church ladies, they said she'd lost her marbles," Matthew explained urgently. "So I won her some new ones and now she'll get better, won't she?" he looked up at his father. Mr Cuthbert sighed and ran his hand through his scruffy hair. Usually she cut it for him, but of course that hadn't happened for months. Softening he looked at the small boy fondly and said, "sorry Matthew." He sniffed noisily, "it was a lovely idea son, but I doubt it will work. Different sort of marbles see."
Matthew didn't, but he looked at his Ma and then at his father. Mr Cuthbert held his arms out for his boy and held him close when he approached. "You're a good lad to try," he said as the small boy sobbed into his waistcoat. "I wish it were as easy as that. How I wish it were. C'mon," he said gently leading Matthew out of the room realising how hard he had tried, despite the effort being futile. "You're a good boy, Matthew. She loves you, she just can't tell you right now."
Two neighbours came to wash Mrs Cuthbert when she eventually passed away. The previously robust woman had wasted away to skin and bone. "A tragedy," one had said quietly and the other woman nodded. Later she pressed a green marble they'd found in the bed into Mr Cuthbert's hand. "Found this under her pillow," she said. "Is it one of Matthew's?"
Mr Cuthbert gave it to his son after the funeral. Solemnly Matthew put it in the old leather bag with the rest of his collection, but he never played marbles again.