Authors: Lois Lowry
Leader looked at him and waited.
when you're little. They seem bigger, and distances seem farther. The first time I came here through Forest? The journey seemed forever.”
“It does take days, Matty, from where you started.”
“Yes, I know. It still takes days. But now it doesn't seem as far or as long. Because I'm older, and bigger, and I've gone back and forth again and again, and I know the way, and I'm not scared. So it seems shorter.”
Leader chuckled. “And the fish?”
“Well,” Matty acknowledged, “there don't seem to be as many. But maybe it's just that I was a little boy back then, when the fish seemed endless.”
Leader tapped the tip of his pen on the desk as he thought. “Maybe so,” he said after a moment. He stood. From a table in the corner of the room he took a stack of folded papers.
“Messages?” Matty asked.
“Messages. I'm calling a meeting.”
“No. I wish it were just about fish. Fish would be easy.”
Matty took the stack of message papers he would be delivering. Before he turned to the staircase to leave, he felt compelled to say, “Fish aren't ever easy. You have to use just the right bait, and know the right place to go, and then you have to pull the line up at just the right moment, because if you don't, the fish can wiggle right off your hook, and not everybody is good at it, and .Â .Â .”
He could hear Leader laughing, still, when he left.
It took Matty most of the day to deliver all of the messages. It wasn't a hard task. He liked the harder ones better, actually, when he was outfitted with food and a carrying pack and sent on long journeys through Forest. Although he hadn't been sent to it in almost two years, Matty especially liked trips that took him back to his former home, where he could greet his boyhood pals with a somewhat superior smile, and snub those who had been cruel to him in the past. His mother was dead, he had been told. His brother was still there, and looked at Matty with more respect than he ever had in the past, but they were strangers to each other now. The community where he had lived was greatly changed and seemed foreign, though less harsh than he remembered.
Today he simply made his way around Village, delivering notice of the meeting that would be held the following week. Reading the message himself, he could understand Leader's questioning about the supply of fish, and the concern and worry that Matty had felt from him.
There had been a petitionâsigned by a substantial number of peopleâto close Village to outsiders. There would have to be a debate, and a vote.
It had happened before, such a petition.
“We voted it down just a year ago,” the blind man reminded Matty when the message had been read to him. “There must be a stronger movement now.”
“There are still plenty of fish,” Matty pointed out, “and the fields are full of crops.”
The blind man crumpled the message and dropped it into the fire. “It's not the fish or crops,” he said. “They'll use that, of course. They argued dwindling food supply last time. It's .Â .Â .”
“Not enough housing?”
“More than that. I can't think of the word for it.
I guess. It's creeping in.”
Matty was startled. Village had been created out of the opposite: selflessness. He knew that from his studies and from hearing the history. Everyone did.
“But in the messageâI could have read it to you again if you hadn't burned itâit says that the group who wants to close the border is headed by Mentor! The schoolteacher!”
The blind man sighed. “Give the soup a stir, would you, Matty?”
Obediently Matty moved the wooden ladle around in the pot and watched beans and chopped tomatoes churn in the thick mixture as it simmered. Thinking still of his teacher, he added, “He's not selfish!”
“I know he isn't. That's why it's puzzling.”
“He welcomes everyone to the school, even new ones who have no learning, who can't even speak properly.”
“Like you, when you came,” the blind man said with a smile. “It couldn't have been easy, but he taught you.”
“He had to tame me first,” Matty acknowledged, grinning. “I was wild, wasn't I?”
Seer nodded. “Wild. But Mentor loves teaching those who need it.”
“Why would he want to close the border?”
“Has Mentor traded, do you know?”
Matty thought about it. “It's school vacation now, so I don't see him as often. But I stop by his homeplace now and then .Â .Â .” He didn't mention Jean, the widowed schoolteacher's daughter. “I haven't noticed anything different in his household.
“No Gaming Machine,” he added, laughing a little.
But the blind man didn't chuckle in reply. He sat thinking for a moment. Then he said, in a worried voice, “It's much more than just a Gaming Machine.”
The schoolteacher's daughter told me that her dog has three puppies. I can have one when it's big enough, if I like.”
“Isn't she the one who promised you a kiss? Now a dog as well? I'd settle for the kiss if I were you, Matty.” The blind man smiled, loosened a beet from the earth, and placed it in the basket of vegetables. They were in the garden together.
“I miss my dog. He wasn't any trouble.” Matty glanced over to the corner of their homeplace's plot of land, beyond the garden, to the small grave where they had buried Branch two years before.
“You're right, Matty. Your little dog was a good companion for many years. It would be fun to have a puppy around.” The blind man's voice was gentle.
“I could train a dog to lead you.”
“I don't need leading. Could you train a dog to cook?”
“Anything but beets,” Matty said, making a face as he threw another into the basket.
But when he went in the afternoon to the schoolteacher's homeplace, Matty found Jean distraught. “Two died last night,” she said. “They took sick. Now there's only one puppy left, and it's sick, and the mother as well.”
“How have you tended them?”
Jean shook her head in despair. “Same as I would for my father or myself. Infusion of white willow bark. But the puppy's too little to drink, and the mother's too sick. She lapped a bit and then just put her head down.”
“Will you take me to see them?”
Jean led him into the small house, and though he was concerned for the dogs, Matty found himself looking around as they walked through, remembering what the blind man had asked. He noticed the sturdy furniture, neatly arranged, and the bookcases filled with Mentor's books. In the kitchen, Jean's baking pans, and the bowls in which she mixed dough, were set out, ready for her wonderful breads to be made.
He saw nothing that hinted of a trade. Nothing silly like a Gaming Machine, nothing frivolous like the soft upholstered furniture decorated with fringe that a foolish young couple down the road had traded for.
Of course there were other kinds of trades, Matty knew, though he didn't fully understand. He had heard murmurs about them. There were trades for things you didn't see. Those were the most dangerous trades.
“They're in here.” Jean opened the door to the storage shed attached to the house at the back of the kitchen. Matty entered and knelt beside the mother dog where she lay on a folded blanket. The tiny puppy, motionless but for its labored breathing, lay in the curve of her belly, the way any puppy would. But a healthy pup would have been wiggling and sucking. This one should have been pawing at its mother for milk.
Matty knew dogs. He loved them. Gently he touched the puppy with his finger. Then, startled, he jerked his hand away. He had felt something painful.
Oddly, it made him think of lightning.
He remembered how he had been instructed, even as a small boy back in his old place, to go indoors during a thunderstorm. He had seen a tree split and blackened by a lightning strike, and he knew that it could happen to a human: the flash and the burning power that would surge through you, looking for a place to enter the earth.
He had watched through the window and seen great fiery bolts split the sky, and he had smelled the sulfurous smell that they sometimes left behind.
There was a man in Village, a farmer, who had stood in the field beside his plow, waiting as dark clouds gathered overhead, hoping the storm would pass by. The lightning had found him there, and though the farmer had survived, he had lost all his memory but for the sensation of raw power that had entered him that afternoon. People tended him now, and he helped with farm chores, but his energy was gone, taken away by the mysterious energy that lived in lightning.
Matty had felt this sensationâthe one of pulsating power, as if he had the power of lightning within his own selfâin the clearing, on a sunny day with no storm brewing.
He had tried to put it out of his mind afterward, any thoughts of the day it had happened, because it frightened him so and made him have a secret, which he did not want. But Matty knew, pulling his hand from the ailing puppy, that it was time to test it once again.
“Where's your father?” he asked Jean. He wanted no one to watch.
“He had a meeting to go to. You know about the petition?”
Matty nodded. Good. The schoolteacher was not around.
“I don't think he really even cares about the meeting. He just wants to see Stocktender's widow. He's courting her.” Jean spoke with affectionate amusement. “Can you imagine? Courting, at his age?”
He needed the girl to be gone. Matty thought. “I want you to go to Herbalist's. Get yarrow.”
“I have yarrow in my own garden! Right beside the door!” Jean replied.
He didn't need yarrow, not really. He needed her
Matty thought quickly. “Spearmint? Lemon balm? Catnip? Do you have all of those?”
She shook her head. “No catnip. If cats were attracted to my garden, the dog would make a terrible fuss.
“Wouldn't you, poor thing?” she said sweetly, leaning down to murmur to the dying mother dog. She stroked the dog's back but it did not lift its head. Its eyes were beginning to glaze.
“Go,” Matty told her in an urgent voice. “Get those things.”
“Do you think they'll help?” Jean asked dubiously. She took her hand from the dog and stood, but she lingered.
“You needn't use a rude tone, Matty,” Jean said with an edge in her voice. But she turned with a flounce of her skirt and went. He barely heard the sound of the door closing behind her. Steeling himself against the painful vibrating shock that he knew would go through his entire body, Matty placed his left hand on the mother dog, his right on the puppy, and willed them to live.
An hour later, Matty stumbled home, exhausted. Back at Mentor's house, Jean was feeding the mother dog and giggling at the antics of the lively puppy.
“Who would have thought of that combination of herbs? Isn't it amazing!” she had said in delight, watching the creatures revive.
“Lucky guess.” He let Jean believe it was the herbs. She was distracted by the sudden liveliness of the dogs and didn't even notice how weak Matty was. He sat leaning against the wall in the shed and watched her tend them. But his vision was slightly blurred and his whole body ached.
Finally, when he had regained a little strength, he forced himself to stand and leave. Fortunately his own homeplace was empty. The blind man was out somewhere, and Matty was glad of that. Seer would have noticed something wrong. He could always feel it. He said the atmosphere in the homeplace changed, as if wind had shifted, if Matty had so much as a cold.
And this was much more. He staggered into his room off the kitchen and lay down on his bed, breathing hard. Matty had never felt so weak, so drained. Except for the frog .Â .Â .
The frog was smaller,
he thought. But it was the same thing.
He had come across the little frog by chance, in the clearing. He had no reason to be there that day; he had simply wanted to be alone, away from busy Village, and had gone into Forest to get away, as he did sometimes.
Barefoot, he had stepped on the frog, and was startled. “Sorry!” he had said playfully, and reached down to pick the little fellow up. “Are you all right? You should have hopped away when you heard me coming.”
But the frog wasn't all right, and couldn't have escaped with a hop. It hadn't been Matty's light step that had injured it; he could see that right away. Some creatureâMatty thought probably a fox or weaselâhad inflicted a terrible wound upon the small green thing, and the frog was almost dead of it. One leg dangled, torn away from the body, held there only by an oozing bit of ragged tissue. In his hand, the frog drew a shuddering breath and then was still.
“Someone chewed you up and spit you out,” Matty said. He was sympathetic but matter-of-fact. The hard life and quick death of Forest's creatures were everyday things. “Well,” he said, “I'll give you a nice burial.”
He knelt to dig out a spot with his hands in the mossy earth. But when he tried to set the little body down, he found that he was connected to it in a way that made no sense. A painful kind of power surged from his hand, flowing into the frog, and held them bound together.
Confused and alarmed, he tried to scrape the sticky body of the frog off his hand. But he couldn't. The vibrating pain held them connected. Then, after a moment, while Matty knelt, still mystified by what was happening, the frog's body twitched.
“So you're not dead. Get off of me, then.” Now he was able to drop the frog to the ground. The stab of pain eased.
“What was that all about?” Matty found himself talking to the frog as if it might be able to reply. “I thought you were dead, but you weren't. You're going to lose your leg, though. And your hopping days are over. I'm sorry for that.”