Matty was impatient to have the supper preparations over and done with. He wanted to cook, eat, and be gone. He wished he were grown so that he could decide when to eat, or whether to bother eating at all. There was something he needed to do, a thing that scared him. Waiting just made it worse.
Matty was no longer a boy, but not yet a man. Sometimes, standing outside the homeplace, he measured himself against the window. Once he had stood only to its sill, his forehead there, pressing into the wood, but now he was so tall he could see inside without effort. Or, moving back in the high grass, he could see himself reflected in the glass pane. His face was becoming manly, he thought, though childishly he still enjoyed making scowls and frowns at his own reflection. His voice was deepening.
He lived with the blind man, the one they called Seer, and helped him. He cleaned the homeplace, though cleaning bored him. The man said it was necessary. So Matty swept the wooden floor each day and straightened the bedcovers: neatly on the man's bed, with haphazard indifference on his own, in the room next to the kitchen. They shared the cooking. The man laughed at Matty's concoctions and tried to teach him, but Matty was impatient and didn't care about the subtlety of herbs.
"We can just put it all together in the pot," Matty insisted. "It all goes together in our bellies anyway. "
It was a long-standing and friendly argument. Seer chuckled. "Smell this," he said, and held out the pale green shoot that he'd been chopping.
Matty sniffed dutifully. "Onion," he said, and shrugged. "We can just throw it in.
"Or," he added, "we don't even need to cook it. But then our breath stinks. There's a girl promised she'd kiss me if I have sweet breath. But I think she's teasing. "
The blind man smiled in the boy's direction. "Teasing's part of the fun that comes before kissing," he told Matty, whose face had flushed pink with embarrassment.
"You could trade for a kiss," the blind man suggested with a chuckle. "What would you give? Your fishing pole?"
"Don't. Don't joke about the trading. "
"You're right, I shouldn't. It used to be a lighthearted thing. But now—you're right, Matty. It's not to be laughed at anymore. "
"My friend Ramon went to the last Trade Mart, with his parents. But he won't talk about it. "
"We won't then, either. Is the butter melted in the pan?"
Matty looked. The butter was bubbling slightly and golden brown. "Yes. "
"Add the onion, then. Stir it so it doesn't burn. " Matty obeyed.
"Now smell that," the blind man said. Matty sniffed. The gently sautéing onion released an aroma that made his mouth water.
"Better than raw?" Seer asked.
"But a bother," Matty replied impatiently. "Cooking's a bother. "
"Add some sugar. Just a pinch or two. Let it cook for a minute and then we'll put the rabbit in. Don't be so impatient, Matty. You always want to rush things, and there's no need. "
"I want to go out before night comes. I have something to check. I need to eat supper and get out there to the clearing before it's dark. "
The blind man laughed. He picked up the rabbit parts from the table, and as always, Matty was amazed at how sure his hands were, how he knew just where things had been left. He watched while the man deftly patted flour onto the pieces of meat and then added the rabbit to the pan. The aroma changed when the meat sizzled next to the softened onion. The man added a handful of herbs.
"It doesn't matter to you if it's dark or light outside," Matty told him, scowling, "but I need the daylight to look at something. "
"What something is that?" Seer asked, then added, "When the meat has browned, add some broth so it doesn't stick to the pan. "
Matty obeyed, tilting into the pan the bowl of broth in which the rabbit had been boiled earlier. The dark liquid picked up chunks of onion and chopped herbs, and swirled them around the pieces of meat. He knew to put the lid on now, and to turn the fire low. The stew simmered and he began to set the plates on the table where they would have their supper together.
He hoped the blind man would forget that he had asked what something. He didn't want to tell. Matty was puzzled by what he had hidden in the clearing. It frightened him, not knowing what it meant. He wondered for a moment whether he could trade it away.
When, finally, the supper dishes were washed and put away, and the blind man sat in the cushioned chair and picked up the stringed instrument that he played in the evening, Matty inched his way to the door, hoping to slip away unnoticed. But the man heard everything that moved. Matty had known him to hear a spider scurry from one side of its web to another.
"Off to Forest again?"
Matty sighed. No escaping. "I'll be back by dark. "
"Could be. But light the lamp, in case you're late. After dark it's nice to have window light to aim for. I remember what Forest was like at night. "
"Remember from when?"
The man smiled. "From when I could see. Long before you were born. "
"Were you scared of Forest?" Matty asked him. So many people were, and with good reason.
"No. It's all an illusion. "
Matty frowned. He didn't know what the blind man meant. Was he saying that fear was an illusion? Or that Forest was? He glanced over. The blind man was rubbing the polished wooden side of his instrument with a soft cloth. His thoughts had turned to the smooth wood, though he couldn't see the golden maple with its curly grain. Maybe, Matty thought, everything was an illusion to a man who had lost his eyes.
Matty lengthened the wick and checked the lamp to be certain there was oil. Then he struck a match.
"Now you're glad I made you clean the soot from the lamp chimneys, aren't you?" The blind man didn't expect an answer. He moved his fingers on the strings, listening for the tone. Carefully, as he did most evenings, he tuned the instrument. He could hear variations in sounds that seemed to the boy to be all the same. Matty stood in the doorway for a moment, watching. On the table, the lamp flickered. The man sat with his head tilted toward the window so that the summer early-evening light outlined the scars on his face. He listened, then turned a small screw on the back of the instrument's wooden neck, then listened again. Now he was concentrating on the sounds, and had forgotten the boy. Matty slipped away.
Heading for the path that entered Forest at the edge of Village, Matty went by a roundabout way so that he could pass the home of the schoolteacher, a good-hearted man with a deep red stain that covered half of his face. Birthmark, it was called. When Matty was new to Village, he had sometimes found himself staring at the man because he had never known anyone before with such a mark. Where Matty had come from, flaws like that were not allowed. People were put to death for less.
But here in Village, marks and failings were not considered flaws at all. They were valued. The blind man had been given the true name Seer and was respected for the special vision that he had behind his ruined eyes.
The schoolteacher, though his true name was Mentor, was sometimes affectionately called "Rosy" by the children because of the crimson birthmark that spread across his face. Children loved him. He was a wise and patient teacher. Matty, just a boy when he first came here to live with the blind man, had attended school full time for a while, and still went for added learning on winter afternoons. Mentor had been the one who taught him to sit still, to listen, and eventually to read.
He passed by the schoolteacher's house not to see Mentor, or to admire the lavish flower garden, but in hopes of seeing the schoolteacher's pretty daughter, who was named Jean and who had recently teased Matty with the promise of a kiss. Often she was in the garden, weeding, in the evenings.
But tonight there
was no sign of her, or her father. Matty saw a fat spotted dog sleeping on the porch, but it appeared that no one was at home.
Just as well, he thought. Jean would have delayed him with her giggles and teasing promises—which always came to nothing, and Matty knew that she made them to all the boys—and he should not even have made the side trip in hopes of seeing her.
He took a stick and drew a heart in the dirt on the path beside her garden. Carefully he put her name in the heart, and his own below it. Maybe she would see it and know he had been there, and maybe she would care.
"Hey, Matty! What are you doing?" It was his friend Ramon, coming around the corner. "Have you had supper? Want to come eat with us?"
Quickly Matty moved toward Ramon, hiding the heart traced in the dirt behind him and hoping his friend wouldn't notice it. It was always fun, in a way, to go to Ramon's homeplace, because his family had recently traded for something called a Gaming Machine, a large decorated box with a handle that you pulled to make three wheels spin around inside. Then a bell rang and the wheels stopped at a small window. If their pictures matched, the machine spit out a chunk of candy. It was very exciting to play.
Sometimes he wondered what they had sacrificed for the Gaming Machine, but one never asked.
"We ate already," he said. "I have to go someplace before it gets dark, so we ate early. "
"I'd come with you, but I have a cough, and Herbalist said I shouldn't run around too much. I promised to go right home," Ramon said. "But if you wait, I'll run and ask. . . "
"No," Matty replied quickly. "I have to go alone. "
"Oh, it's for a message?"
It wasn't, but Matty nodded. It bothered him a little to lie about small things. But he always had; he had grown up lying, and he still found it strange that the people in this place where he now lived thought lying was wrong. To Matty, it was sometimes a way of making things easier, more comfortable, more convenient.
"See you tomorrow, then. " Ramon waved and hurried on toward his own homeplace.
Matty knew the paths of Forest as if he had made them. And indeed, some of them were of his making, over the years. The roots had flattened as he made his way here and there, seeking the shortest, safest route from place to place. He was swift and quiet in the woods, and he could feel the direction of things without landmarks, in the same way that he could feel weather and was able to predict rain long before the clouds came or there was a shift in wind. Matty simply knew.
Others from Village rarely ventured into Forest. It was dangerous for them. Sometimes Forest closed in and entangled people who had tried to travel beyond. There had been terrible deaths, with bodies brought out strangled by vines or branches that had reached out malevolently around the throats and limbs of those who decided to leave Village. Somehow Forest knew. Somehow, too, it knew that Matty's travels were benign and necessary. The vines had never reached out for him. The trees seemed, sometimes, almost to part and usher him through.
"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, Messenger would be the choice. He liked the sound of it and looked forward to taking that title.