Authors: Lois Lowry
“I want to stop on my way out of Village and see Ramon,” Matty said. “I'd better hurry or I'll never get started.”
“Oh, Matty,” Jean said. “You don't know? Ramon's very sick. His sister, too. They've put a sign on the door to their house. No one can enter.”
Troubling though the news was, Matty was not surprised. Ramon had been coughing, feverish-looking, and increasingly unwell for days now. “What does Herbalist say?”
“That's why they put the sign up. Herbalist is afraid it may be contagious. That an epidemic could come.”
What was happening to Village?
Matty felt a terrible unease. There had never been an epidemic here. He remembered the place he had come from, where many had died, from time to time, and all of their belongings had been burned, after, in hopes of destroying the illnesses carried by filth or fleas or, some thought, sorcery. But it had never happened here. People had always been so careful here, so clean.
He could see that the blind man's face had taken on a worried look, too, at the news.
For a moment, Matty stood there thinking while Seer arranged his pack on his back and attached the rolled blanket below it. He thought of the frog first, then the puppy, and wondered if his gift could save his friend. He could go to Ramon's house now, and place his hands upon the feverish body. He knew it would be indescribably hard, would take all of his strength, but he thought there might be a chance.
But what then? If he himself survived such an attempt, he would be desperately weakened, he knew, and would have to recover. He could not possibly make the journey through Forest if he first weakened himself on Ramon's behalf. Forest was already thickening, he knew, whatever that meant. It would soon become impassable. The blind man's daughter would be lost to them forever.
And, most important, Leader had told him to save his gift.
Don't spend it,
Leader had said.
So Matty decided with regret that he would have to leave Ramon to his illness.
“Look,” Jean said suddenly. “Look at this. It's
Matty glanced over and saw that she was standing in front of the tapestry Kira had made for her father. Even from where he stood, he could see what Jean meant. The entire forest area, the hundreds of tiny stitches in shades of green, had darkened, and the threads had knotted and twisted in odd ways. The peaceful scene had changed into something no longer beautiful. It had an ominous feel to it, a feel of impenetrability.
He went near to it and stared at it, puzzled and alarmed.
“What is it, Matty?” Jean asked.
“Nothing. It's all right.” He indicated with his eyes that she should not speak aloud of the odd change in the tapestry. Matty did not want Seer to know.
It was time to go.
He wriggled his shoulders to adjust the pack comfortably on his back, and leaned forward to hug the blind man, who murmured to him, “Be safe.”
To his surprise, Jean kissed him. So often in the past, teasing, she had said she would, one day. Now she did, and it was a quick and fragrant touch to his lips that gave him courage and, even before he started out, made him yearn to come back home.
Frolic was afraid of the dark. Matty had never noticed it before, because always they had been indoors, with the oil lamp glowing, at night. He laughed a little to hear the puppy whimper in fear when night fell and Forest turned black. He picked him up and murmured words of reassurance but could feel the dog's body tremble, still, in his arms.
Well, thought Matty, it was time to sleep, anyway. He was quite near the clearing where the frog had been and perhaps still was. Carefully he made his way across the soft moss, holding Frolic against his chest and feeling the way with his feet. Then he knelt in the gnarled root bed of a tall tree and removed his pack. He unrolled the blanket, fed Frolic a few pieces torn from the loaf of bread, nibbled at it himself, and then curled up with his puppy and drifted off.
Frolic raised his head. His nose twitched and he flicked his ears curiously at the sound. But then he buried his head again under the curve of Matty's arm. Soon he too slept.
The days of the journey passed, and after the fourth night, the food was gone. But Matty was strong and unafraid, and to his surprise, little Frolic did not need to be carried. The puppy followed him and sat watching patiently as he posted the messages along divergent paths. Doing so lengthened the journey considerably. If he had gone straight through, he would be approaching Kira's village, his own home in the past, quite soon. But he reminded himself that being a messenger was his most important task, and so he took the side paths, walked great distances, and left the message of Village's closure at each place where new ones coming could be advised to turn back.
The scarred woman and her group had come from the east, he knew. There was a look that identified the easterners. He could see, on the path to the east, remaining bits of evidence that they had come through not long before: crushed underbrush where they had huddled to sleep, chunks of charcoal where a fire had been, a pink ribbon that had fallen, Matty thought, from a child's hair. He picked it up and put it in his backpack.
He wondered if the woman had left her son behind and returned alone to her other children by now. There was no sign of her.
The weather remained clear and he was grateful for that, because although he had bragged about past journeys through snow, in truth it was very hard to fight the elements, and almost impossible to find food in bad weather. Now there were early-fall berries and many nuts; he laughed at the chattering squirrels who were storing their own provisions, and with little guilt robbed a nest he found that was half filled with winter fare.
He knew places to fish, and the best way to catch them. Frolic turned up his nose at fish, even after Matty had grilled one on his small fire.
“Go hungry, then,” Matty told him, laughing, and finished the browned, glistening fish himself. Then, as he watched, Frolic cocked his ears, listening, and dashed off. Matty heard a squawk, then a flurry of wings and rustling leaves and growls. After a bit, Frolic returned, looking satisfied, and with a bit of feather stuck to his whiskers.
“So? I had fish, you had bird.” It amused Matty to talk to Frolic as if he were human. Since his other puppy had died, he had always traveled the paths alone. Now it was a treat to have company, and sometimes he felt that Frolic understood every word he said.
Although it was a subtle change, he understood what Leader had meant when he said that Forest was thickening. Matty knew Forest so well that he could anticipate changes that came with the seasons. Ordinarily, at summer's end, as now, some leaves would be falling, and by the time snow came, later, many trees would be bare. In the heart of winter, he needed to find water at the places where streams rushed quickly and didn't freeze; many of the quiet pools he knew well would be coated with ice. In spring there would be irritating insects to brush from his face, but there would be fresh, sweet berries then, too.
Always, though, it was familiar.
But on this journey, something was different. For the first time, Matty felt hostility from Forest. The fish were slow to come to his hook. A chipmunk, usually an amiable companion, chittered angrily and bit his finger when he held his hand toward it. Many red berries, of a kind he had always eaten, had black spots on them and tasted bitter; and for the first time he noticed poison ivy growing across the path again and again, where it had never grown before.
It was darker, too. The trees seemed to have moved at their tops, leaning toward each other to create a roof across the path; they would protect him from rain, he realized, and perhaps that was a good thing. But they didn't seem benevolent. They created darkness in the middle of day, and shadows that distorted the path and made him stumble from time to time on roots and rocks.
And it smelled bad. There was a stench to Forest now, as if it concealed dead, decaying things in the new thick darkness.
Camping in a clearing that he knew well from previous journeys, Matty sat on a log that he had often used as a seat while he cooked his meal. Suddenly it crumbled under him, and he had to pick himself up and brush rotting bark and slimy, foul-smelling material from his clothing. The piece of log that had been there so long, sturdy and useful, had simply fallen into chunks of dead vegetative matter; never again would it provide Matty a place to rest. He kicked it away and watched countless dislodged beetles scurry to new hiding places.
He began to have trouble sleeping. Nightmares tormented him. His head ached suddenly, and his throat was sore.
But he was not far, now, from his destination. So he trudged on. To divert himself from the discomfort that Forest had become, he thought about himself as a little boy. He remembered his earliest days when he had called himself the Fiercest of the Fierce, and his friendship then with the girl named Kira who was the blind man's daughter.
Such a swaggering, brash little boy he had been! With no father, and only an impoverished, embittered mother to try to make a life for children she had not wanted and did not love, Matty had turned to a life of small crimes and spirited mischief. Most of his time had been spent with a ragtag band of dirty-faced boys who carried out whatever schemes they could to survive. The harshness of his homeplace led him to thievery and deceit; had he been grown, he would have been imprisoned or worse.
But there had always been a gentle side to Matty, even when he had disguised it. He had loved his dog, a mongrel he had found injured and had nursed back to health. And he had come, eventually, to love the crippled girl called Kira, who had never known her father, and whose mother had died suddenly and left her alone.
“Mascot,” Kira had called him, laughing. “Sidekick.” She had made him wash, taught him manners, and told him stories.
“I be the Fiercest of the Fierce!” he had bragged to her once.
“You are the dirtiest of the dirty faces,” she had said, laughing, in reply, and given him the first bath he ever had. He had struggled and protested, but in truth had loved the feel of warm water. He had never learned to love soap, though Kira gave him some for his own. But he felt the years of grime slip from him and knew that he could turn into someone cleaner, better.
Roaming as he always had, Matty had learned the intricate paths of Forest. One day he had found his way to Village for the first time, and had met the blind man there.
“She lives?” the blind man had asked him, unbelieving. “My daughter is alive?”
It was very dangerous for the blind man to return. Those who had tried to kill him, who had left him for dead years before, thought they had succeeded. They would have slain him instantly had he found his way back. But Matty, a master of stealth, had brought him secretly, at night, to meet his daughter for the first time. He watched from a corner of the room as Kira recognized the broken stone that Seer wore as an amulet, and matched it to her own, fitting it to the fragment given to her by her dying mother. Matty saw the blind man touch his daughter's face, to learn her, and he watched in silence as they mourned Kira's mother together, their hearts connected by the loss.
Then, when darkness came the next night, he had led the blind man back again. But Kira would not come. Not then.
“Someday,” she had told Matty and her father when they begged her to return with them to Village. “I'll come someday. There's time still. And I have things to do here first.”
“I suppose there's a young man,” the blind man had said to Matty as they traveled back without her. “She's the age for it.”
“Nah,” Matty had said scornfully. “Not Kira. She has better stuff on her mind.
“Anyways,” he had added, referring to her twisted leg, “she has that horrid gimp. No one can marry iffen they got a gimp. She's lucky they didn't feed her to the beasts. They wanted to. They only kept her 'cause she could do things they needed.”
“She grows flowers, andâ”
“Her mother did, too.”
“Yes, her mum taught her, and to make the colors from them.”
“Yes, she dyes the threads and then she makes pictures from them. No one else can do it. She has like a magic touch, they say. And they want her for that.”
“She would be honored in Village. Not only for her talent but for her twisted leg.”
“Turn here.” Matty took the blind man's arm and guided him to the right side of a turning in the path. “Watch the roots there.” He noticed that a root lifted itself and stabbed slightly at the man's sandaled foot. It made him very nervous, guiding on this return trip, because he could feel, being familiar with it, that Forest was giving small Warnings to the blind man. He would not be allowed to come through again.
“She'll come when she's ready,” he reassured Kira's father. “And till then, I'll go back and forth between.”
But it had been two years since he had last seen Kira.
Matty emerged from Forest with a stumble, blinking at the sudden sunshine, for he had been in the dim thickness of trees for many days now and felt that he had almost forgotten light.
He fell on the path and sat there panting, slightly dizzy, with Frolic pawing worriedly at his leg. In the past he had alwaysâwhat would the word be?
âfrom Forest, sometimes whistling. But this was different. He felt that he had been expelled. Chewed up and spat out. When he looked back toward the trees, in the direction he had come, it seemed inhospitable, unwelcoming, locked down.
He knew he would have to reenter Forest and return by those same dark paths that now seemed so ominous. He would have to lead Kira through, to the safety of her future with her father. And he knew suddenly that it would be his last journey in that place.