Authors: Lois Lowry
He stood and looked down at the impassive frog.
Its throat made the sound.
“Yes. I agree. Same to you.” Matty turned to leave.
The sound compelled him to go back and to kneel again. The frog's wide-open eyes, which had been glazed with death only a few moments before, were now clear and alert. It stared at Matty.
“Look, I'm going to put you over here in the ferns, because if you stay in the open, some other creature will come along and gobble you up. You have a big disadvantage now, not being able to hop away. You'll have to learn to hide.”
He picked up the frog and carried it to the thicket of high ferns. “If I had my knife with me,” he told it, “I'd probably just slice through those threads that are holding your leg. Then maybe you could heal more quickly. As it is, you'll be dragging that leg around and it will burden you. But there's nothing I can do.”
He leaned down to turn it loose, still thinking about how best to help it. “Maybe I can find a sharp rock and slice through. It's just a tiny bit of flesh and it probably wouldn't even pain you if I did it.
“You stay right here,” Matty commanded, and placed the frog on the earth beside the ferns.
As if it could hop,
Back at the edge of the small stream he had crossed, Matty found what he needed as a tool: a bit of rock with a sharp edge. He took it back to where the wounded frog lay, immobilized by its wound.
“Now,” Matty told the frog, “don't be scared. I'm going to spread you out a bit and then carefully cut that dead leg away. It's the best thing for you.” He turned the frog onto its back and touched the shredded leg, meaning to arrange it in a way that would make the amputation simple and fast. There were only a few sticky strands of flesh to slice through.
But he felt a sudden jolt of painful energy enter his arm, concentrated in his fingertips. Matty was unable to move. His hand grasped the nearly severed leg and he could feel his own blood moving through its vessels. His pulse thrummed and he could hear the sound of it.
Terrified, Matty held his breath for what seemed forever. Then it all stopped. The thing that had happened ended. He lifted his hand tentatively from the wounded frog.
“I'm leaving now. I don't know what happened, but I'm leaving now.” He dropped the sharp rock and tried to rise, but his knees were weak and he felt dizzy and sick. Still kneeling beside the frog, Matty took a few long breaths, trying to get his strength again so that he could flee.
“Stop it. I don't want to hear that.”
As if it understood what Matty had said, the frog turned, flopping itself over from its belly-up position, and moved toward the ferns. But it was not dragging a useless leg. Both legs were movingâawkwardly, to be sure, but the frog was propelling itself with both legs. It disappeared into the clump of quivering ferns.
After a moment Matty was able to stand. Desperately tired, he had made his way out of Forest and stumbled home.
Now, lying on his bed, he felt the same exhaustion, magnified. His arms ached. Matty thought about what had happened.
The frog was very small. This was two dogs.
This was bigger.
I must learn to control it,
Matty told himself.
Then, surprisingly, he began to cry. Matty had a boyish pride in the fact that he never cried. But now he wept, and it felt as if the tears were cleansing him, as if his body needed to empty itself. Tears ran down his cheeks.
Finally, shuddering with exhaustion, he wiped his eyes, turned on his side, and slept, though it was still midday. The sun was high in the sky over Village. Matty dreamed of vague, frightening things connected to pain, and his body was tense even as he slept. Then his dream changed. His muscles relaxed and he became serene in his sleep. He was dreaming now of healed wounds, new life, and calm.
New ones coming! And there's a pretty girl among them!”
Ramon called to Matty but didn't stop. He was hurrying past, eager to get to Village's entrance place, where new ones always came in. There was, in fact, a Welcome sign there, though many new ones, they had discovered, could not read. Matty had been one of those. The word welcome had meant nothing to him then.
“I saw it but couldn't read it,” he had said to Seer once, “and you could have read it but you couldn't see it.”
“We're quite a pair, aren't we? No wonder we get along so well together.” The blind man had laughed.
“May I go? I'm almost done here.” When Ramon ran past and called to them, Matty and the blind man had been clearing out the garden, pulling up the last of the overgrown pea vines. Their season was long past. Soon summer would end. They would be storing the root vegetables soon.
“Yes, of course. I'll go, too. It's important to welcome them.”
They wiped their dirty hands quickly and left the garden, closing the gate behind them and following the same path Ramon had rushed along. The entrance was not far, and the new ones were gathered there. In the past, new ones had mostly arrived alone or in pairs, but now they seemed to come in groups: whole families, often, looking tired, for they had come great distances, and frightened, because they had left fearsome things behind and usually their escape had been dangerous and terrifying. But always they were hopeful, too, and clearly relieved to be greeted by the smiles. The people of Village prided themselves on the welcome, many of them leaving their regular work to go and be part of it.
Frequently the new ones were damaged. They hobbled on canes or were ill. Sometimes they were disfigured by wounds or simply because they had been born that way. Some were orphans. All of them were welcomed.
Matty joined the crowded semicircle and smiled encouragingly at the new ones as the greeters took their names, one by one, and assigned them to helpers who would lead them to their living spaces and help them settle in. He thought he saw the girl Ramon had mentioned, a thin but lovely girl about their age. Her face was dirty and her hair uncombed. She held the hand of a younger child whose eyes were thick with yellow mucus; it was a common ailment of new ones, quickly healed with herbal mixtures. He could tell that the girl was worried for the child, and he tried to smile at her in a way that was reassuring.
There were more than usual this time. “It's a big group,” Matty whispered to the blind man.
“Yes, I can hear that it is. I wonder if somehow they have begun to hear rumors that we may close.”
As he spoke, they both heard something and turned. Approaching the welcoming entrance and the busy processing of the new ones, a small group of people Matty recognizedâwith Mentor leading themâcame forward, chanting, “Close. Close. No more. No more.”
The welcoming group was uncertain how to react. They continued to smile at the new ones and to reach forward to take their hands. But the chant made everyone uncomfortable.
Finally, in the confusion, Leader appeared. Someone had sent for him, apparently. The crowd parted to allow him through and the chanters fell silent.
Leader's voice was, as always, calm. He spoke first to the new ones, welcoming them. He would have done this later in the day, after they had been fed and settled. But now, instead of waiting, he reassured them briefly.
“We were all of us new ones once,” he said with a smile, “except for the youngsters who have been born here.
“We know what you have been through.
“You will no longer be hungry. You will no longer live under unfair rule. You will never be persecuted again.
“We are honored to have you among us. Welcome to your new home. Welcome to Village.”
He turned to the greeters and said, “Do the processing later. They are tired. Take them to their living spaces so they can have baths and food. Let them rest for a while.”
The greeters encircled the new ones and led them away.
Then Leader turned to those who remained. “Thank you, those of you who came to give welcome. It is one of the most important things we do in Village.
“Those of you who object? Mentor? You and the others?” He looked at the small group of dissenters. “You have that right, as you know. The right to dissent is one of our most important freedoms here.
“But the meeting is in four days. Let me suggest that instead of worrying and frightening these new ones, who have just come and are weary and confused, let us wait and see what the meeting decides.
“Even those of you who want to close Village to new onesâeven you value the peace and kindness we have always embraced here. Mentor? You seem to be leading this. What do you say?”
Matty turned to look at Mentor, the teacher who meant so much to him. Mentor was thinking, and Matty was accustomed to seeing him deep in thought, for it was part of his classroom demeanor. He always thought over each question carefully, even the most foolish question from the youngest student.
Odd, Matty thought. The birthmark across Mentor's cheek seemed lighter. Ordinarily it was a deep red. Now it seemed merely pink, as if it were fading. But it was late summer. Probably, Matty decided, Mentor's skin had been tanned by the sun, as his own was; and this made the birthmark less visible.
Still, Matty was uneasy. Something
was different today about Mentor. He couldn't name the difference, not really. Was it that Mentor seemed slightly
How strange that would be, Matty thought. But the teacher had always walked with a bit of a stoop. His shoulders were hunched over. People said that he had aged terribly after his beloved wife's death, when Jean was just a small child. Sadness had done it.
Today he stood erect and his shoulders were straight. So he
taller, but wasn't, Matty decided with relief. It was simply a changed posture.
“Yes,” Mentor said to Leader, “we will see what the meeting decides.”
His voice sounded different, Matty noticed.
He saw that Leader, too, was noticing something about Mentor and was puzzled. But everyone was turning away now, the crowd dispersing, people returning to their usual daily tasks. Matty ran to catch up with the blind man, who had started walking the familiar path home.
Behind him he heard an announcement being made. “Don't forget!” someone was calling out. “Trade Mart tomorrow night!”
With the other things that had consumed Matty's thoughts recently, he had almost forgotten about Trade Mart.
Now he decided he would attend.
Trade Mart was a very old custom. No one remembered its beginnings. The blind man said that he had first known of it when he was a newcomer to Village, still an invalid with wounds to be tended. He had lain on a bed in the infirmary, in pain, unseeing, his memory slow to return, and half listened to the conversations of the gentle folk who took care of him.
“Did you go to the last Trade Mart?” he had heard one person ask another.
“No, I have nothing to trade. Did you?”
“Went and watched. It all seems foolishness to me.”
He had put it from his mind, then. He had nothing to trade, either. He owned nothing. His torn, blood-stained clothes had been taken from him and replaced. From a cord around his neck dangled an amulet of some sort, and he felt its importance but could not remember why. Certainly he would not trade it for some trinket; it was all he had left of his past.
The blind man had described all of that to Matty.
“Later I went, just to watch,” he told him.
Matty laughed at him. They were close, by then, and he could do that.
The blind man laughed in reply. “I have my own kind of watching,” he said.
“I know you do. That's why they call you Seer. You see more than most. Can anyone go to Trade Mart and watch?”
“Of course. There are no secrets here. But it was dull stuff, Matty. People called out what they wanted to trade for. Women wanted new bracelets, I remember, and they traded their old bracelets away. Things like that.”
“So it's like Market Day.”
“It seemed so to me. I never went back.”
Now, speaking of it the evening of the new ones' arrival, the blind man expressed concern. “It's changed, Matty. I hear people talk of it now, and I feel the changes. Something's wrong.”
“What kind of talk?”
The blind man was sitting with his instrument on his lap. He played one chord. Then he frowned. “I'm not sure. There's a secrecy to it now.”
“I got up my nerve and asked Ramon what his parents traded for the Gaming Machine. But he didn't know. He said they wouldn't tell him, and his mother turned away when he asked, as if she had something to hide.”
“I don't like the sound of it.” The blind man stroked the strings and played two more chords.
“The sound of your own music?” Matty asked with a laugh, trying to lighten the conversation.
“Something's happening at Trade Mart,” Seer said, ignoring Matty's attempt at humor.
“Leader said the same.”
“He would know. I'd be wary of it, Matty, if I were you.”
The next evening, while they prepared supper, he told the blind man he was planning to go.
“I know you said I was too young, Seer. But I'm not. Ramon's going. And maybe it's important for me to go. Maybe I can figure out what's happening.”
Seer sighed and nodded. “Promise me one thing,” he told Matty.
“Make no trade. Watch and listen. But make no trade. Even if you're tempted.”
“I promise.” Then Matty laughed. “How could I? I have nothing to trade. What could I give for a Gaming Machine? A puppy too young to leave its mother? Who'd want that?”
The blind man stirred the chicken that simmered in a broth. “Ah, Matty, you have more than you know. And people will want what you have.”