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Authors: Lois Lowry

Messenger (7 page)

BOOK: Messenger
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“It's late,” the blind man said. “Time to go to bed.” He rose from his chair and put his stringed instrument on the shelf where he kept it. He began to walk slowly to his sleeping room. “Good night, Matty,” he said.

Then he said something else, almost to himself.

“So now she has a Gaming Machine,” the blind man murmured. His voice sounded scornful.

Matty, at the sink, remembered something. “Mentor's birthmark is completely gone,” he called to Seer.

Eight

The puppy was ready. So was Matty. The other little dog, the one who had been his childhood companion for years, had lived a happy, active life, died in his sleep, and had been buried with ceremony and sadness beyond the garden. For a long time Matty, missing Branch, had not wanted a new dog. But now it was time, and when Jean summoned him—her message was that Matty had to come right away to pick up the puppy, because her father was furious at its mischief—he hurried to her house.

He had not been to Mentor's homeplace since Trade Mart the previous week. The flower garden, as always, was thriving and well tended, with late roses in bloom and fall asters fat with bud. He found Jean there, kneeling by her flower bed, digging with a trowel. She smiled up at him, but it was not her usual saucy smile, fraught with flirtatiousness, the smile that drove Matty nearly mad. This morning she seemed troubled.

“He's shut in the shed,” she told Matty, meaning the puppy. “Did you bring a rope to lead him home?”

“Don't need one. He'll follow me. I have a way with dogs.”

Jean sighed, set her trowel aside, and wiped her forehead, leaving a smear of earth that Matty found very appealing. “I wish I did,” she said. “I can't control him at all. He's grown so fast, and he's very strong and determined. My father is beside himself, wanting such a wild little thing gone.”

Matty grinned. “Mentor deals with lots of wild little things in the schoolhouse. I myself was a wild little thing once, and it was he who tamed me.”

Jean smiled at him. “I remember. What a ragged, naughty thing you were, Matty, when you came to Village.”

“I called myself the Fiercest of the Fierce.”

“You were that,” Jean agreed with a laugh. “And now your puppy is.”

“Is your father home?”

“No, he's off visiting Stocktender's widow, as usual,” Jean said with a sigh.

“She's a nice woman.”

Jean nodded. “She is. I like her. But, Matty . . .”

Matty, who had been standing, sat down on the grass at the edge of the garden. “What?”

“May I tell you something troubling?”

He felt himself awash with affection for Jean. He had for a long time been attracted to her girlish affectations, her silly charms and wiles. But now, for the first time, he felt something new. He perceived the young woman behind all those superficial things. With her curly hair tumbling over her dirt-streaked forehead, she was the most beautiful person Matty had ever seen. And now she was talking to him in a way that was not foolish and childlike, designed to entrance, but instead was human and pained and adult. He felt suddenly that he loved her, and it was a feeling he had never known before.

“It's about my father,” she said in a low voice.

“He's changing, isn't he?” Matty replied, startling himself, because he had not spelled it out in his mind before, had not said it aloud yet, yet here it was, and he was saying it to Jean. He felt an odd sense of relief.

Jean began to cry softly. “Yes,” she said. “He has traded his deepest self.”

“Traded?” That part took Matty by surprise because he had not thought it through to there. “Traded for what?” Matty asked in horror, and realized he was repeating the phrase from Trade Mart.

“For Stocktender's widow,” she said, weeping. “He wanted her to love him, so he traded. He's becoming taller and straighter. The bald spot at the back of his head has grown over with hair, Matty. His birthmark has disappeared.”

Of course. That was it.
“I saw it,” Matty told her, “but I didn't understand.” He put his arm around the sobbing girl.

She caught her breath finally. “I didn't know how lonely he was, Matty. If I had known . . .”

“So that's why . . .” Matty was trying to sort through it in his head.

“The puppy. Once he would have loved a naughty puppy, Matty, the way he loved you when you were a raggedy boy. I knew it all for certain yesterday when he kicked the puppy. Till then I only suspected.” Jean wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and left another endearing streak of dirt.

“And the petition!” Matty added, thinking of it suddenly.

“Yes. Father always welcomed new ones. It was the most wonderful part of Father, how he cared for everyone and tried to help them learn. But now . . .”

They heard a loud whimpering from the shed, and a scratching sound.

“Let him out, Jean, and I'll take him home before your father gets back.”

She went to the shed door, opened it, and though her face was tear-streaked now, she smiled at the eager, ungainly puppy who bounded forth, jumped into Matty's arms, and licked his cheeks. The white tail was a whir.

“I need time to think,” Matty said, subduing the puppy with a rhythmic scratch below his chin.

“What's to think about? There's nothing to be done. Trades are forever. Even if a stupid thing like a Gaming Machine breaks down, or if you tire of it—you don't get to reverse.”

He wondered if he should tell her. She had seen the effect of his power on the puppy and its mother, but hadn't understood. Now, if he chose, perhaps he could explain. But he was uncertain about this. He did not know how far his power went and he did not want to promise this beloved girl something impossible. To repair a man's soul and deepest heart—to reverse an irreversible trade—might be far, far more than Matty could possibly undertake.

So he stayed silent, and took his lively puppy away.

 

“Look! He sits now when I tell him to.” Then Matty groaned and said, “Oh, sorry.”

When would he ever learn to stop saying “Look” to a man who had no eyes?

But the blind man laughed. “I don't need to be able to look. I can hear that he sits. The sounds of his feet stop. And I don't feel his teeth on my shoes.”

“He's smart, I think,” Matty said optimistically.

“Yes, I think you're right. He's a good little puppy, Matty. He'll learn quickly. You don't need to worry about his mischief.” The blind man reached out his hand and the puppy scampered to it and licked his fingers.

“And he's quite beautiful.” In truth, Matty was trying to convince himself. The puppy was a combination of several colors, big feet, a whirligig of a tail, and lopsided ears.

“I'm sure he is.”

“He'll need a name. I haven't thought of the right one yet.”

“His true name will come to you.”

“I hope I get my own soon,” Matty said.

“It will come when the time comes.”

Matty nodded and turned back to the dog. “First I thought of Survivor, because he was the only one of the puppies that did. But it's too long. It doesn't sound like the right one.” Matty picked up the puppy and scratched its belly as it lay on his lap.

“So then . . .” Matty began to laugh. “Since he was the one that lived? I thought of Liver for a name.”

“Liver?”
The blind man laughed as well.

“I know, I know. It was a stupid idea. Liver with onions.” Matty made a face.

He set the puppy on the floor again and it dashed off, tail wagging, to growl at the logs piled beside the stove and to chew at their edges where raw wood curled.

“You could ask Leader,” the blind man suggested. “He's the one who gives true names to people. Maybe he'd do it for a puppy.”

“That's a good idea. I have to go see Leader anyway. It's time to take messages around for the meeting. I'll take the puppy with me.”

 

Clumsy with his stubby legs and oversized feet, the puppy couldn't manage the stairs at Leader's homeplace. Matty picked him up and carried him, then set him on the floor in the upper room where Leader was waiting at his desk. The stacks of messages were ready. Matty could have taken them and left on his errand without pausing. But he lingered. He enjoyed Leader's company. There were things he wanted to tell him. He began to put them in order in his mind.

“Do you want to put a paper down for him?” Leader asked, watching with amusement as the little thing scampered about the room.

“No, he's fine. He never has an accident. It was the first thing he learned.”

Leader leaned back in his chair and stretched. “He'll be good company for you, Matty, the way Branch was.

“Do you know,” he went on, “in the place where I was a child, there were no dogs? No animals at all.”

“No chickens? Or goats?”

“No, nothing.”

“What did you eat, then?” Matty asked.

“We had fish. Lots of fish, from a hatchery. And plenty of vegetables. But no animal meat. And no pets at all. I never knew what it meant to have a pet. Or even to love something and be loved back.”

His words made Matty think of Jean. He felt his face flush a little. “Did you never love a girl?” he asked.

He thought Leader would laugh. But instead the young man's face became reflective.

“I had a sister,” Leader said, after a moment. “I think of her still, and hope she's happy.”

He picked up a pencil from the desk, twirled it in his fingers, and gazed through the window. His clear blue eyes seemed to be able to see great distances, even into the past, or perhaps the future.

Matty hesitated. Then he explained, “I meant a
girl.
Not like a sister. But a—well, a
girl.

Leader put the pencil down and smiled. “I understand what you mean. There was a girl once, long ago. I was younger than you, Matty, but I was at the age when such things begin.”

“What happened to her?”

“She changed. And I did too.”

“Sometimes I think I want nothing to change, ever,” Matty said with a sigh. Then he remembered what he had wanted to tell Leader.

“Leader, I went to Trade Mart,” he said. “I hadn't been before.”

Leader shrugged. “I wish they'd vote to end it,” he said. “I never go anymore, but I did in the past. It seemed folly and time-wasting. Now it seems worse.”

“It's the only way to get something like a Gaming Machine.”

Leader made a face. “A Gaming Machine,” he commented with disdain.

“Well, I'd like one,” Matty grumbled. “But Seer says no.”

The puppy wandered to a corner of the room, sniffed, made a circle of himself, collapsed, and fell asleep. Matty and Leader, together, watched it and smiled.

“It isn't just Gaming Machines and such.” Matty had wondered how to say it, how to describe it. Now, into the silence, as they watched the sleeping puppy, he found himself simply blurting it out. “Something else is happening at Trade Mart. People are changing, Leader. Mentor is.”

“I've seen the changes in him,” Leader acknowledged. “What are you telling me, Matty?”

“Mentor has traded away his deepest self,” Matty said, “and I think that others are, too.”

Leader leaned forward and listened intently as Matty described what he had seen, what he suspected, and what he knew.

 

“Leader gave me a name for him, but I don't know if I like it.”

Matty was back home by lunchtime, after delivering the last of the messages. The blind man was at the sink, washing some clothes.

“And what is it?” he asked, turning toward Matty's voice.

“Frolic.”

“Hmmmm. It has a nice sound to it. How does the puppy feel about it?”

Matty lifted the puppy from where it had been riding, curled up inside his jacket. For most of the morning it had followed him, scampering at his heels, but eventually its short legs had tired, and Matty had carried it the rest of the way.

The puppy blinked—he had been asleep in the jacket—and Matty set him on the floor.

“Frolic?” Matty said, and the puppy looked up. His tail churned.

“Sit, Frolic!”
Matty said. The puppy sat instantly. He looked intently at Matty.

“He did!” Matty told the blind man in delight.

“Lie down, Frolic!”

After a flicker of a pause, the puppy reluctantly sank to the floor and touched the rug with his small nose.

“He knows his true name already!” Matty knelt beside the puppy and stroked the little head. “Good puppy,” he said. The big brown eyes gazed up at him and the spotted body, still sprawled obediently on the floor, quivered with affection.

“Good Frolic,” Matty said.

Nine

There was much talk in Village about the coming meeting. Matty heard it everywhere, people arguing about the petition.

By now, some of the latest group of new ones were out and about, their sores clearing up, their clothes clean and hair combed, frightened faces eased, and their haunted, desperate attitudes changing to something more serene. Their children played, now, with other children of Village, racing down the lanes and paths in games of tag and hide-and-seek. Watching them, Matty remembered his own child self, his bravado and the terrible anguish it had concealed. He had not believed anyone would want him, ever, until he came to Village, and even then he had not trusted in its kindness for a long time.

With Frolic scampering at his heels, Matty made his way toward the marketplace to buy some bread.

“Good morning!” he called cheerfully to a woman he encountered on the path. She was one of the new ones, and he remembered her from the recent welcome. Her eyes had been wide in her gaunt face that day. She was scarred, as if by untended wounds, and one arm was held crookedly, so that it was awkward for her to do things.

BOOK: Messenger
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