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Authors: Lois Lowry

Messenger (13 page)

BOOK: Messenger
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Kira nodded and took a bite from the deep red apple he had given her. “It will be good to reduce the weight in your pack,” she pointed out. “We can move more quickly then.”

They were seated on the blanket in the place Matty had chosen to spend the first night. They had covered quite a distance during the day. He was surprised at how well she was able to keep up the pace.

“No, Frolic, not my stick.” Kira scolded the little dog affectionately when he tried to use her cane as a plaything to chew. “Here,” she said to him, and picked up a stick from the ground. She threw it to him and he dashed away with it, growling playfully, hoping that someone would chase him. When no one did, he lay down and attacked the stick like a warrior, tearing its bark with his small sharp teeth.

Matty tossed some dead twigs onto the fire he had built. It was close to dark now, and chilly. “We walked a long way today,” he told Kira. “I'm amazed at how well you manage. I thought that because of your leg . . .”

“I'm so accustomed to it. I've always walked like this.” Kira untied her leather sandals and began to rub her feet. “I'm tired, though. And look. I'm bleeding.” She leaned forward with the hem of her skirt bunched in her hand, and wiped blood from the sole of her foot. “I'll throw this dress away when we arrive.” She laughed. “Will there be fabric there so that I can make new clothes?”

Matty nodded. “Yes. There's plenty in the marketplace. And you can borrow clothes, too, from my friend Jean. She's about your size.”

Kira looked at him. “Jean?” she said. “You've not mentioned her before.”

He grinned and was glad it was dark so she wouldn't see his face turning crimson. It startled him that he had blushed. What was happening? He had known Jean for years. They had played together as children after his arrival in Village. He had tried, once, to tease and frighten her with a snake, only to discover that she loved garden snakes.

To Kira, now, he just shrugged. “She's my friend.

“She's pretty,” he added, then cringed, embarrassed that he had said that, and waited for Kira to tease him. But she wasn't really listening. She was examining her feet, and he could see, even in the flickering light of the fire, that the soles were badly cut and bleeding.

She dipped the hem of her dress into the bowl of water they had set out for Frolic, and wiped the wounds. Watching her in the firelight, Matty could see her wince.

“How bad is it?” he asked.

“It will be all right. I've brought some herbal salve and I'll rub it in.” He watched as she opened a pouch she took from her pocket and began to treat the punctures and cuts.

“Is there something wrong with your shoes?” he asked, glancing at the soft leather sandals set side by side on the ground. They had firm soles and she had seemed to walk comfortably in them.

“No. My shoes are fine. It's strange, though. While we were walking, I kept having to stop to pull twigs out of my shoes. You probably noticed.” She laughed. “It was as if the underbrush was actually
reaching in
to poke at me.”

She rubbed a little more ointment into the wounds on her feet. “It poked me
hard,
too. Maybe tomorrow I'll wrap some cloth around my feet before I put my sandals back on.”

“Good idea.” Matty didn't let her see how uneasy this made him feel. He fed the fire again and then arranged some rocks around it so that it couldn't escape from the little cleared space where he had built it. “We should sleep now, and get an early start tomorrow.”

Soon, curled on the ground beside her, with Frolic between them and the blanket thrown across all three, Matty listened. He heard Kira's even breathing; she had fallen asleep immediately. He felt Frolic stir and turn in his light puppyish slumber, probably dreaming of birds and chipmunks to chase. He heard the last shifting of the sticks in the fire as it died and turned to ash. He heard the whoosh and flutter of an owl as it dived, and then the tiny squeal of a doomed rodent caught in its talons.

From the direction toward which they were traveling, he perceived a hint of the stench that permeated the deep center of Forest. By Matty's calculations, they would not reach the center for three days. He was surprised that already the foul smell of decay drifted to where they were resting. When finally he slept, his dreams were layered over with an awareness of rot and the imminence of terrible danger.

 

In the morning, after they had eaten, Kira wrapped both of her feet in fabric torn from her petticoat, and when the wrappings were thick and protective, she loosened the straps of her sandals and fit her bandaged feet carefully into them.

Then she picked up her stick and walked a bit around the fire to test the arrangement. “Good,” she said after a moment. “It's quite comfortable. I won't have a problem.”

Matty, rolling the blanket around the remains of their food, glanced over. “Tell me if it happens again, the sticks and twigs poking at you.”

She nodded. “Ready, Frolic?” she called, and the puppy scampered to her from the bushes where he had been pawing at a rodent's hole. Kira adjusted her wrapped bundle of embroidery tools on her back and prepared to follow Matty as he set off.

To his surprise, he had some difficulty finding the path this second morning. That had never happened before. Kira waited patiently behind him as he investigated several apparent entrances from the clearing where they had slept.

“I've come through here so often,” he told her, puzzled. “I've slept in this same place so many times before. And I've always kept the path clear and easy to find. But now . . .”

He pushed back some bushes with his hand, stared for a moment at the ground he had revealed, then took his knife from his pocket and pruned back the branches. “Here,” he said, pointing. “Here's the path. But the bushes have somehow grown across and hidden it. Isn't that strange? I just came through here a day and a half ago. I'm sure it wasn't over-grown like this then.”

He held the thick shrubbery back to make it easier for Kira to enter, and was pleased to see that her foot-steps, despite her injured feet, seemed firm and without pain.

“I can push things with my stick,” she told him. “See?” She raised her stick and used it to force up a thick vine that had reached from one tree to another on the other side of the path, making a barrier at the height of their shoulders. Together they ducked and went under the vine. But immediately they could see that there were others ahead, barring their approach.

“I'll cut them,” Matty said. “Wait here.”

Kira stood waiting, Frolic suddenly quiet and wary at her feet, while Matty sliced through the vines at eye level ahead of them.

“Ow,” he said, and winced. An acidic sap dripped from the cut vines and burned where it landed on his arm. It seemed to eat through the thin cotton fabric of his sleeve. “Be careful not to let it drip on you,” he called to Kira, and motioned to her to come forward.

They made their way carefully through the passageway, which was a maze of vines, Matty in front with his knife. Again and again the sap spattered onto his arms until his sleeves were dotted with holes and the flesh beneath was burned raw. Their progress was very slow, and when finally the path widened, opened, and was free of the glistening growth—which they could see had already, amazingly, regrown and reblocked the path they had just walked—they stopped to rest. It had begun to rain. The trees were so thick above them that the downpour barely penetrated, but the foliage dripped and was cold on their shoulders.

“Do you have more of that herbal salve?” Matty asked.

Kira took it from her pocket and handed it to him. He had pushed back his sleeves and was examining his arms. Inflamed welts and oozing blisters had made a pattern on his skin.

“It's from the sap,” he told her, and rubbed the salve onto the lesions.

“I guess my sweater was thick enough to protect me. Does it hurt?”

“No, not much.” But it wasn't true. Matty didn't want to alarm her, but he was in excruciating pain, as if his arms had been burned by fire. He had to hold his breath and bite his tongue to keep from crying out as he applied the salve.

For a brief moment, he thought that he might try to use his gift, to call forth the vibrating power and eradicate the stinging poisonous rash on his arms. But he knew he must not. It would take too much out of him—it would, in Leader's words,
spend his gift
—and it would hamper their progress. They had to keep moving. Something so terrifying was happening that Matty did not even try to assess it.

Kira did not know. She had never made this journey before. She could feel the difficulties of this second day but did not realize they were unusual. She found herself able to laugh, not aware of the incredible pain that Matty was feeling in his singed and blistered arms. “Goodness,” she said, chuckling, “I'm glad my clematis doesn't grow that fast or that thick. I'd never be able to open my front door.”

Matty rolled his sleeves back down over the painful burns and returned the salve to Kira. He forced himself to smile.

Frolic was whimpering and trembling. “Poor thing,” Kira said, and picked him up. “Was that path scary? Did some of the sap drip on you?” She handed him to Matty.

He saw no wounds on the puppy, but Frolic was unwilling to walk. Matty tucked him inside his jacket, curling the ungainly legs and feet, and the puppy nestled there against his chest. He felt the little heart beat against his own.

“What's that smell?” Kira asked, making a face. “It's like compost.”

“There's a lot of decaying stuff in the center of Forest,” he told her.

“Does it get worse?”

“I'm afraid it will.”

“How do you get through it? Do you tie a cloth around your nose and mouth?”

He wanted to tell her the truth.
I've never smelled it before. I've come through here a dozen, maybe two dozen, times, but I have never smelled it before. The vines have never been there. It has never been like this before.

Instead, he said, “That's the best method, I suppose. And your salve has a nice herbal odor. We'll rub some of it on our upper lips, so it will block that foul smell.”

“And we'll hurry through,” she suggested.

“Yes. We'll go through as quickly as we can.”

The searing sensation in his arms had subsided, and now they simply throbbed and ached.

But his body felt hot and weak, as if he were ill. Matty wanted to suggest that they stop here and rest, that they spread the blanket and lie down for a while. But he had never rested at midday on previous journeys. And now they could not afford the time. They had to move forward, toward the stench. At least the vines were behind them now, and he didn't see any ahead.

The cold rain continued to fall. He remembered, suddenly, how Jean's hair curled and framed her face when it was damp. In contrast to the horrible stench that was growing stronger by the minute, he remembered the fragrance of her when she had kissed him goodbye. It seemed so long ago.

“Come,” he said, and gestured to Kira to follow.

 

Leader told the blind man that Matty and Kira had made it through the first night and were well into the second day. He murmured it from the chair where he was resting, lacking the strength to talk in his usual firm voice.

“Good,” the blind man said cheerfully, unsuspecting. “And the puppy? How's Frolic? Could you see him?”

Leader nodded. “He's fine.”

The truth was that the puppy was in better condition than Matty himself, Leader knew. So was Kira. Leader could see that Kira had had problems the first day, when Forest had punctured and wounded her. His gift had given him a glimpse of her bleeding feet. He had watched her rub on the salve and wince, and he had winced in sympathy. But she was managing well now. He could see, but did not tell the blind man, that now Forest was attacking Matty instead.

And he could see as well that they had not yet approached the worst of it.

Seventeen

By the second afternoon Matty was in agony, and he knew there was still a day to go before the worst of it. His arms, poisoned by the sap, had festered and were seeping, swollen, and hot. The path was almost entirely overgrown now, and the bushes clawed at him, scraping at the infected burns until he was close to sobbing with the pain.

He could no longer delude Kira into thinking this was an ordinary journey. He told her the truth.

“What should we do?” she asked him.

“I don't know,” he said. “We could try to go back, I suppose, but you can see that the path back is blocked already. I don't think we could find the way, and I know I can't go through those vines again. Look at my arms.”

He gingerly pulled back his ruined sleeve, and showed her. Kira gasped. His arms no longer looked like human limbs. They had swollen until the skin itself had split and was oozing a yellowish fluid.

“We're close to the center now,” he explained, “and once we get through that, we'll be on the way out. But we still have a long way to go, and it will most likely get a lot worse than it is already.”

She followed him, uncomplaining, for there was no other choice, but she was pale and frightened.

When they came, finally, to the pond where he ordinarily refilled his water container and sometimes caught some fish, he found it stagnant. Once clear and cool, the water was now dark brown, clogged with dead insects, and it smelled of kinds of filth he could only guess at.

So they were thirsty now.

The rain had stopped, but it left them clammy and cold.

The smell was much, much worse.

Kira smoothed the herbal salve on their upper lips and wrapped cloth around their noses and mouths to filter the stench. Frolic huddled, head down, inside Matty's shirt.

Suddenly the path, the same path he had always followed, ended abruptly at a swamp that had never been there before. Sharp, knifelike reeds grew from glistening mud. There was no way around. Matty stared at it and tried to make a plan.

BOOK: Messenger
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