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Authors: Lois Lowry

Messenger (3 page)

BOOK: Messenger
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The blind man chuckled. He had heard it all before, many times. “Run out to the garden and get a head of lettuce, Matty, while I finish cleaning the fish. Then you can make a salad while the fish cooks.”

“And
also,
” Matty continued in a loud voice as he headed for the garden just beyond the door, “it would be a nice end to a meal. Something sweet. Sort of a dessert. I did tell you, didn't I, how the Gaming Machine gives you a candy when you win?”

“See if there's a nice ripe tomato while you're out there getting the lettuce. A
sweet
one,” Seer suggested in an amused voice.

“You might get a peppermint,” Matty went on, “or a gumdrop, or maybe something they call a sourball.” Beside the back step he reached into the vegetable garden and uprooted a small head of lettuce. As an afterthought, he pinched a cucumber loose from its vine nearby, and pulled some leaves from a clump of basil. Back in the kitchen, he put the salad things in the sink and halfheartedly began to wash them.

“Sourballs come in different colors, and each color is a flavor,” he announced, “but I suppose that wouldn't interest you.”

Matty sighed. He looked around. Even though he knew the blind man wouldn't see his gesture, he pointed to the nearby wall, which was decorated by a colorful wall-hanging, a gift from the blind man's talented daughter. Matty stood often before it, looking carefully at the intricate embroidered tapestry depicting a large thick forest separating two small villages far from each other. It was the geography of his own life, and that of the blind man, for they had both moved from that place to this other, with great difficulty.

“The Gaming Machine could stand right there,” he decided. “It would be very convenient.
Extremely
convenient,” he added, aware that the blind man liked it when he exercised his vocabulary.

Seer went to the sink, moved the washed lettuce to the side, and began to rinse the cleaned salmon steaks. “And so we would give up—or maybe even trade away—reading, and music, in exchange for the
extreme
excitement of pulling a handle and watching sourballs spit forth from a mechanical device?” he asked.

Put that way, Matty thought, the Gaming Machine didn't actually seem such a good trade. “Well,” he said, “it's fun.”

“Fun,” the blind man repeated. “Is the stove ready? And the pan?”

Matty looked at the stove. “In a minute,” he said. He stirred the burning wood a bit so that the fire flared. Then he placed the oiled pan on top. “I'll do the fish,” he said, “if you fix the salad.

“I brought some basil in, too,” he added, with a grin, “just because you're such a salad perfectionist. It's right there beside the lettuce.” He watched while the blind man's deft hands found the basil and tore the leaves into the wooden bowl.

Then Matty took the fish and laid it in the pan, swirling the oil around. In a moment the aroma of the sautéing salmon filled the room.

Outside, it was twilight. Matty adjusted the wick on an oil lamp and lighted it. “You know,” he remarked, “when you win a candy, a bell rings and colored lights blink. Of course that wouldn't matter to
you,
” he added, “but some of us would really appreciate—”

“Matty, Matty, Matty,” the blind man said. “Keep an eye on that fish. It cooks quickly. No bell rings when it's done.

“And don't forget,” he added, “that they traded for that Gaming Machine. It probably came at a high cost.”

Matty frowned. “Sometimes you get licorice,” he said as a last attempt.

“Do you know what they traded? Has Ramon told you?”

“No. Nobody ever tells.”

“Maybe he doesn't even know. Maybe his parents didn't tell him. That's probably good.”

Matty took the pan from the stove and slid the browned fish onto two plates, one after the other. He placed them on the table and brought the salad bowl from the sink. “It's ready,” he said.

The blind man went to the bread container and found two thick pieces of bread that smelled fresh-baked. “I got this at the marketplace this morning,” he said, “from Mentor's daughter. She'll make someone a good wife. Is she as pretty as her voice makes her sound?”

But Matty was not going to be diverted by reminders of the schoolteacher's pretty daughter. “When's the next Trade Mart?” he asked, when they were both seated.

“You're too young.”

“I heard that there was one coming soon.”

“Pay no attention to what you hear. You're too young.”

“I won't be always. I ought to watch.”

The blind man shook his head. “It would be painful,” he said. “Eat your fish now, Matty, while it's warm.”

Matty poked at the salmon with his fork. He could tell that there was to be no more discussion of trading. The blind man had never traded, not one single time, and was proud of it. But Matty thought that someday he himself would. Maybe not for a Gaming Machine. But there were other things that Matty wanted. He ought to be allowed to know how the trading worked.

He decided he would find out. But first he had the other thing to worry about, and the troubling awareness that he had not dared to tell the blind man of it.

 

There were no secrets in Village. It was one of the rules that Leader had proposed, and all of the people had voted in favor of it. Everyone who had come to Village from elsewhere, all of those who had not been born here, had come from places with secrets. Sometimes—not very often, for inevitably it caused sadness—people described their places of origin: places with cruel governments, harsh punishments, desperate poverty, or false comforts.

There were so many such places. Sometimes, hearing the stories, remembering his own childhood, Matty was astounded. At first, having found his way to Village, he had thought his own brutal beginnings—a fatherless hovel for a home; a grim, defeated mother who beat him and his brother bloody—were unusual. But now he knew that there were communities everywhere, sprinkled across the vast landscape of the known world, in which people suffered. Not always from beatings and hunger, the way he had. But from ignorance. From
not knowing.
From being kept from knowledge.

He believed in Leader, and in Leader's insistence that all of Village's citizens, even the children, read, learn, participate, and care for one another. So Matty studied and did his best.

But sometimes he slipped back into the habits of his earlier life, when he had been a sly and deceitful boy in order to survive.

“I can't help it,” he had argued glumly to the blind man, in the beginning of their life together, when he had been caught in some small transgression. “It's what I learnt.”


Learned.
” The correction was gentle.

“Learned,” Matty had repeated.

“Now you are relearning. You are learning honesty. I'm sorry to punish you, Matty, but Village is a population of honest and decent people, and I want you to be one of us.”

Matty had hung his head. “So you'll beat me?”

“No, your punishment will be no lessons today. You will help me in the garden instead of going to school.”

It had seemed, to Matty then, a laughable punishment. Who wanted to go to school, anyway? Not him!

Yet, when he was deprived of it, and could hear the other children reciting and singing in the schoolhouse, he felt woefully lost. Gradually he had learned to change his behavior and to become one of Village's happy children, and soon a good student. Now half grown and soon to finish school, he slipped only occasionally into old bad habits and almost always caught himself when he did.

It bothered Matty greatly, now, having a secret.

Four

Leader had summoned Matty for message-running.

Matty enjoyed going to Leader's homeplace, because of the stairs—others had stairs, though Matty and the blind man did not, but Leader's stairs were circular, which fascinated Matty, and he liked going up and down—and because of the books. Others had books, too. Matty had a few schoolbooks, and he often borrowed other books from the library so that he could read stories to the blind man in the evenings, a time they both enjoyed.

But Leader's homeplace, where he lived alone, had more books than Matty had ever seen in one place. The entire ground floor, except for the kitchen to one side, was lined with shelves, and the shelves were filled with volumes of every sort. Leader allowed Matty to lift down and look at any one he wanted. There were stories, of course, not unlike the ones he found in the library. There were history books as well, like those he studied at school, the best ones filled with maps that showed how the world had changed over centuries. Some books had shiny pages that showed paintings of landscapes unlike anything Matty had ever seen, or of people costumed in odd ways, or of battles, and there were many quiet painted scenes of a woman holding a newborn child. Still others were written in languages from the past and from other places.

Leader laughed wryly when Matty had opened to a page and pointed to the unknown language. “It's called Greek,” Leader said. “I can read a few words. But in the place of my childhood, we were not allowed to learn such things. So in my spare time, I have Mentor come and help me with languages. But . . .” Leader sighed. “I have so little spare time. Maybe when I'm old, I will sit here and study. I'd like that, I think.”

Matty had replaced the book and run his hand gently over the leather bindings of the ones beside it.

“If you weren't allowed to learn,” he asked, “why did they let you bring the books?”

Leader laughed. “You've seen the little sled,” he said.

“In the Museum?”

“Yes. My vehicle of arrival. They've made such a thing of it, it's almost embarrassing. But it is true that I came on that sled. A desperate boy, half dead. No books! The books were brought to me later. I have never been as surprised in my life as I was the day those books arrived.”

Matty had looked around at the thousands of books. In his own arms—and Matty was strong—he could have carried no more than ten or twelve at a time.

“How did they come to you?”

“A river barge. Suddenly there it was. Huge wooden crates aboard, and each one filled with books. Until that time I had always been afraid. A year had passed. Then two. But I was still afraid; I thought they would still be looking for me, that I would be recaptured, put to death, because no one had ever fled my community successfully before.

“It was only when I saw the books that I knew that things had changed, that I was free, and that back there, where I had come from, they were rebuilding themselves into something better.

“The books were a kind of forgiveness, I think.”

“So you could have gone back,” Matty said. “Was it too late? Had Forest given you Warnings?”

“No. But why would I go back? I had found a home here, the way everyone has. That's why we have the Museum, Matty, to remind us of how we came, and why: to start fresh, and begin a new place from what we had learned and carried from the old.”

 

Today Matty admired the books, as he always did in Leader's homeplace, but he didn't linger to touch or examine them. Nor did he stop to admire the staircase, with its intricate risers of crafted, polished wood that ascended in a circle to the next level. When Leader called, “Up here, Matty,” he bounded up the stairs to the second floor, into the spacious room where Leader lived and worked.

Leader was at his desk. He looked up from the papers in front of him and smiled at Matty. “How's the fishing?”

Matty shrugged and grinned. “Not too bad. Caught four yesterday.”

Leader laid his pen aside and leaned back in his chair. “Tell me something, Matty. You and your friend are out there a lot, fishing. And you've been doing it for a long time—since you came to Village as a little boy. Isn't that so?”

“I don't remember exactly how long. I was only about this high when I came.” Matty gestured with his hand, placing it level with the second button of his own shirt.

“Six years,” Leader told him. “You arrived six years ago. So you've been fishing for all that time.”

Matty nodded. But he stiffened. He was wary. It was too soon for his true name to be bestowed, he thought. Surely it was not going to be
Fisherman!
Was that why Leader had called him here?

Leader looked at him and began to laugh. “Relax, Matty! When you look like that, I can almost read your mind! Don't worry. It was only a question.”

“A question about fishing. Fishing's a thing I do just to get food or to fool around. I don't want it to turn into something more.” Matty liked that about Leader, that you could say what you wanted to him, that you could tell him what you felt.

“I understand. You needn't worry about that. I was asking because I need to assess the food supply. Some are saying there are fewer fish than there once were. Look here, what I've been writing.” He passed a paper over to Matty. There were columns of numbers, lists headed “Salmon” and “Trout.”

Matty read the numbers and frowned. “It might be true,” he said. “I remember at first I would pull fish after fish from the river. But you know what, Leader?”

“What?” Leader took the paper back from Matty and laid it with others on his desk.

“I was little then. And maybe you don't remember this, because you're older than I am . . .”

Leader smiled. “I'm still a young man, Matty. I remember being a boy.” Matty thought he noticed a brief flicker of sadness in Leader's eyes, despite the warm smile. So many people in Village—including Matty—had sad memories of their childhoods.

“What I meant was, I remember all the fish, the feeling that they would never end. I felt that I could drop my line in again and again and again and there would always be fish. Now there aren't. But, Leader . . .”

BOOK: Messenger
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