Read Messenger Online

Authors: Lois Lowry

Messenger (2 page)

BOOK: Messenger
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“Forest likes me,” he had proudly commented once to the blind man.

Seer had agreed. “Maybe it needs you,” he pointed out.

The people needed Matty, too. They trusted him to know the paths, to be safe on them, and to do the errands that required traveling through the thick woods with its complicated, mazelike turnings. He carried messages for them. It was his job. He thought that when it came time to be assigned his true name,
would be the choice. He liked the sound of it and looked forward to taking that title.

But this evening Matty was not carrying or collecting a message, though he had fibbed and told Ramon so. He headed to a clearing he knew of, a place that lay just beyond a thick stand of bristly pines. Deftly he jumped a small brook, then turned off the worn path to proceed between two trees, pushing his way through. These trees had grown fast in recent years, and now the clearing was completely concealed and had become Matty's private place.

He needed privacy for this thing he was discovering about himself: a place to test it in secret, to weigh his own fear for what it meant.

It was dim in the clearing. Behind him, the sun was starting to set over Village, and the light that reached down through Forest was pinkish and pale. Matty made his way across the mossy ground of the clearing to a thicket of tall ferns near the base of a tree. He squatted there and listened, leaning his head toward the ferns. Softly he made a sound, one he had practiced; a brief moment later, he heard the sound he had both hoped and dreaded to hear, in response.

He reached gently into the undergrowth and lifted out a small frog. From his hand, it looked up at him through bulging, unafraid eyes, and made the sound again:



Matty repeated the frog's throaty sound, as if they were conversing. Though he was nervous, the back-and-forth sounds made him laugh a little. He examined the slick green body carefully. The frog made no effort to leap from his hand. It was passive in his palm, and the deep translucent throat quivered.

He found what he was looking for. In a way, he had hoped he would not. His life would be easier, Matty knew, if the little frog were unmarked and ordinary. But it was not; he had known it would not be; and he knew that things were all shifting for him now. His future had taken a new and secret turn. It was not the frog's fault, he realized, and gently he replaced the small green creature in the tall ferns and watched the fronds tremble as it moved away, unaware. He realized that he was trembling as well.


Returning to Village along the path that was deep in shadows now, Matty heard sounds from the area beyond the marketplace. At first he thought in surprise that people were singing. Singing was common in Village, but usually not outdoors, not in the evening. Puzzled, he paused and listened. It was not singing at all, Matty realized, but the rhythmic and mournful sound they called keening, the sound of loss. He set aside his other worries and began to hurry through the evening's last light to the homeplace, where the blind man would be waiting and would explain.


Did you hear about what happened to Gatherer last night? He tried to go back but it had been too long.” Ramon and Matty, carrying their fishing rods, had met for an excursion to catch salmon, and Ramon was bursting with the news.

Matty winced at what his friend said. So Gatherer had been taken by Forest. He was a cheerful man who loved children and small animals, who smiled often and told boisterous jokes.

Ramon spoke in the self-important tone of one who likes being a conveyor of news. Matty was very fond of his friend but sometimes suspected that his true name might eventually turn out to be Boaster.

“How do you know?”

“They found him last night on the path behind the schoolhouse. After I left you, I heard the commotion. I saw them bring his body in.”

“I heard the noise. Seer and I thought it must be someone taken.”

Matty had arrived at the homeplace the night before to find the blind man preparing for bed and listening attentively to the low collective moan, clearly a large number of people grieving.

“Someone's been lost,” the blind man had said with a worried look, pausing while unbuckling his shoes. He sat on his bed, dressed in his nightshirt.

“Should I take a message to Leader?”

“He'll know already, from the sound. It's a keening.”

“Should we go?” Matty asked him. In a way, he had wanted to. He had never attended a keening. But in another way, he was relieved to see the blind man shake his head no.

“They have enough. It sounds like a good-sized group; I can hear at least twelve.”

As always, Matty was amazed at the capacity of the blind man's perceptions. He himself heard only the chorus of wails. “Twelve?” he asked, and then teased, “Are you sure it's not eleven, or thirteen?”

“I hear at least seven women,” the blind man said, not noticing that Matty had intended it as a joke. “Each has a different pitch. And I think five men, though one is quite young, maybe your age. The voice is not as deep as it will be later. It may be that friend of yours; what's his name?”


“Yes. I think I hear Ramon's voice. He's hoarse.”

“Yes, he has a cough. He's taking herbs for it.”

Now, recalling it, Matty asked his friend, “Did you keen? I think we may have heard you.”

“Yes. They had enough. But since I was there, they let me join. I have this cough, though, so my voice wasn't very good. I only went because I wanted to see the body. I've never seen one.”

“Of course you have. You were with me when we watched them lay out Stocktender for burial. And you saw that little girl after she fell in the river and they pulled her out drowned. I remember you were there.”

“I meant entangled,” Ramon explained. “I've seen plenty of dead. But till last night I never saw one entangled.”

Neither had Matty. He had only heard of it. Entangling happened so rarely that he had begun to think of it as a myth, something from the past. “What was it like? They say it's hideous.”

Ramon nodded. “It was. It looked as if first the vines grabbed him by the neck and pulled tight. Poor Gatherer. He had grabbed at them to pull loose but then they curled around his hands as well. He was completely entangled. The look on his face was fearsome. His eyes were open but twigs and all had started to enter under the lids. And they were in his mouth, too. I could see something wrapped around his tongue.”

Matty shuddered. “He was such a nice man,” he said. “He always tossed berries to us when he was out gathering. I would open my mouth wide and he would aim for it. If I caught a berry in my mouth he cheered and gave me extra.”

“Me too.” Ramon looked sad. “And his wife has a new baby. Someone said that's why he went. He wanted to go tell her family about the baby.”

“But didn't he know what would happen? Hadn't he received Warnings?”

Ramon coughed suddenly. He bent over and gasped. Then he straightened up and shrugged. “His wife says not. He went once before, when their first child was born, and had no trouble. No Warning.”

Matty thought about it. Gatherer must have overlooked a Warning. The early ones were sometimes small. He felt great sadness for the gentle, happy man who had been so brutally entangled and had left two children fatherless. Forest always gave Warnings, Matty knew. He entered so often himself and always was watchful. If he had one Warning, even the smallest, he would never enter again. The blind man had entered only once, to return to his original village when it needed his wisdom. He had come back safely, but he had had a small Warning on his return: a sudden painful puncture from what had seemed a tiny twig. He couldn't see it, of course, though later he said he had felt it come forward, had perceived it with the kind of knowledge that had made the people designate Seer as his true name. But Matty, still a young boy, had been with him then, as a guide; and Matty had seen the twig grow, expand, sharpen, aim itself, and stab. There was no question. It was a Warning. The blind man could never enter Forest again. His time for going back had ended.

Yet Matty had never been warned. Again and again he entered Forest, moved along its trails, spoke to its creatures. He understood that for some reason, he was special to Forest. He had traveled its paths for years, six years now, since that first time, when he was still very young and had left the home that had been cruel to him.

“I'm never going in,” Ramon said firmly. “Not after seeing what it did to Gatherer.”

“You don't have a place to go back to,” Matty pointed out. “You were born in Village. It's only those who try to go back to someplace that they left once.”

“Like you, maybe.”

“Like me, except I'm careful.”

“I'm not taking the chance. Is this a good place to fish?” Ramon asked, changing the subject. “I don't want to walk any farther. I'm tired all the time lately.” They had been ambling toward the river, skirting the cornfield, and had reached the grassy bank where they often fished together. “We caught a lot here last time. My mother cooked some for dinner, but there were so many that I nibbled on left-overs while I was playing the Gaming Machine after dinner.”

The Gaming Machine again. Ramon mentioned it so often. Maybe
would be his true name, Matty thought. He had already decided on Boaster, but now, in his mind, he decided Gloater was more appropriate. Or Bragger. He was tired of hearing about the Gaming Machine. And a little jealous, too.

“Yes, here,” Matty said. He scrambled down the slippery bank to the place where a boulder, large enough to stand on, jutted out. Both boys climbed the huge outcropping of rock and settled at the top to prepare their fishing gear and cast their lines for salmon.

Behind them, Village, quiet and peaceful, continued its daily life. Gatherer had been buried this morning. With her toddler playing on the floor by her feet, his widow now nursed her new baby on the porch of her homeplace, attended by comforting women who sat with their knitting and embroidery and spoke only of happy things.

In the schoolhouse, Mentor, the schoolteacher, gently tutored a mischievous eight-year-old named Gabe, who had neglected his studies to play and now needed help. His daughter, Jean, sold flower bouquets and loaves of fresh-baked bread in her marketplace stall while she flirted, laughing, with the gangly, self-conscious boys who stopped by.

The blind man, Seer, made his way through the lanes of Village, checking on the populace, assessing the well-being of each individual. He knew each fence post, each crossroad, each voice and smell and shadow. If anything was amiss, he would do his best to make it right.

From a window, the tall young man known as Leader looked down and watched the slow and cheerful pace of Village, of the people he loved, who had chosen him to rule and guard them. He had come here as a boy, finding his way with great difficulty. The Museum held the remains of a broken sled in a glass case, and the inscription explained that it had been Leader's arrival vehicle. There were many relics of arrival in the Museum, because each person who had not been born in Village had his own story of coming there. The blind man's history was told there, too: how he had been carried, near dead, from the place where enemies had left him with his eyes torn out and his future in his own place gone.

In the Museum's glass cases there were shoes and canes and bicycles and a wheeled chair. But somehow the small red-painted sled had become a symbol of courage and hope. Leader was young but he represented those things. He had never tried to go back, never wanted to. This was his home now, these his people. As he did every afternoon, he stood at the window and watched. His eyes were a pale, piercing blue.

He watched with gratitude as the blind man moved through the lanes.

He could see beyond a porch railing to the young woman who rocked an infant and mourned her husband.
Grieve gently,
he thought.

He could see beyond the cornfield to where two young boys named Matty and Ramon were dangling lines into the river.
he thought.

He could see beyond the marketplace to the cemetery where Gatherer's ruined body had been buried.
Rest in peace,
he thought.

Finally he looked toward the border of Village, to the place where the path entered Forest and became shrouded in shadows. Leader could see beyond the shadows but was not certain what he saw. It was blurred, but there was something in Forest that disturbed Leader's consciousness and made him uneasy. He could not tell whether it was good or bad. Not yet.


Deep in the thick undergrowth near the clearing, at the edge of Leader's puzzled awareness, a small green frog ate an insect it had caught with its sticky, fast-darting tongue. Squatting, it moved its protruding eyes around, trying to sense more insects to devour. Finding nothing, it hopped away. One back leg was oddly stiff but the frog barely noticed.


If we had a Gaming Machine,” Matty commented in a studied, offhand manner, “our evenings would never be boring.”

“You think our evenings are boring, Matty? I thought you enjoyed our reading together.”

Seer laughed, and corrected himself. “Sorry. I meant your reading to me, Matty, and my listening. It's my favorite time of day.”

Matty shrugged. “No, I like reading to you, Seer. But I meant it's not

“Well, we should choose a different book, perhaps. That last one—I've forgotten its name, Matty—was a little slow-going.
Moby Dick.
That was the one.”

“It was okay,” Matty conceded. “But it was too long.”

“Well, ask at the library for something that would move along more quickly.”

“Did I explain to you how a Gaming Machine works, Seer? It moves very quickly.”

BOOK: Messenger
2.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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