Read Fish Online

Authors: L.S. Matthews

Fish (4 page)

BOOK: Fish
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We had been traveling for only an hour or so, I suppose, when the little gusts of wind, which were freezing, started to hit me in the back harder and harder. It made you stagger. Dad turned and noticed.

“Hang on a minute,” he said to the Guide, and he stopped and turned too, and the next gust of wind smacked him with a faceful of dust. While he spluttered and wiped his eyes, Dad managed to get my blanket roll from the donkey's back, trying to keep his head behind his arm to keep the grit out of his eyes.

He rigged it up around my back and shoulders, over the top of my bag with the cooking pot tied on. The blanket lashed around for a moment in the wind, but he managed to knot two corners under my chin, so well that it just about throttled me. Still, I was a lot warmer.

“This wind isn't good,” said the Guide, spitting out dust. I thought, what wind would be, on a freezing cold day, with nothing but dirt to blow around?

But he went on: “It comes and it can stay for days, and get stronger. Let's move on.”

Mum pulled her shawl right up over her head and kept her back to the wind. She put out her hand and pulled me closer to her as we walked, and we kept in
front of Dad so we could use him as a kind of buffer for the wind.

Now my feet were beginning to get sore. They had been sore for a while, but I didn't want to complain. Dad's worry about crossing mountains with “a child and a woman” had made me determined to show him I was tougher than he thought, like the Guide said.

With the cold off my back, it was as if my body had suddenly remembered about my feet, and started to concentrate on making them hurt as much as possible. But the Guide had said we must move on, so now I couldn't say anything.

After what seemed like forever, we heard a muffled shout from the Guide, and lifted our heads, which had been ducked down under the wind. It was a change to look somewhere else than straight down at the earth road with the dust swirling round your ankles and feet, trying not to step in a pothole or trip over a rock.

Through the sandy air, we could just make out the shapes of men, some kind of bar across the road
propped on old metal barrels, and a jeep. At the same moment, Mum noticed I was limping.

“What's the matter? Do your feet hurt?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, too tired to lie.

Dad nearly cannoned into the back of us when we stopped, because he hadn't heard the Guide and still had his head down. He asked what was the matter. The Guide, realizing we had stopped, sensibly backed up to us instead of turning around into the wind.

The grown-ups looked down worriedly at me and my feet, which looked fine. I looked at the ground, sorry to be a nuisance, cross at my feet for letting me down.

“We're here now, at the border,” said Dad through the wind, crouching down next to my ear so that I could hear him. “Just hobble the last yards up to the soldiers. We might even get a ride from the other side of the border in a car or something. The agency knows we're coming and are going to meet us and pick us up when we tell them where we've crossed.”

The Guide said nothing.

I nodded and we walked the last few yards, this time
in a line straight across instead of one behind the other.

When we reached the men, they moved across the barrier with their guns slung across their shoulders, but in a friendly way, with one walking out to meet us. Me and Mum hung back while Dad and the Guide talked to him. I noticed that the donkey, for once, didn't follow the men but stayed with us. It hung its head and looked tired.

Now the man with the gun was holding the papers that Dad had fished out of his pocket and explaining something. The other guards moved in closer to listen. Dad talked and waved his hands about.

The Guide, who had been watching but saying nothing, then had his turn. He talked and pointed back toward me and Mum several times. The first man shook his head and shrugged and talked more.

“Oh dear,” said Mum, squeezing my hand.

Suddenly, the conversation seemed to be over. Dad and the Guide turned back toward us, the sand-wind hitting them in the face, but they didn't seem to care.

When they reached us, Mum set about Dad's face with a rag from up her sleeve. She looked like she was about to do the same for the Guide, but then remembered herself and offered him the rag instead. He flapped his hand as if to say thanks, but pulled out his own rag.

When they could speak again, the Guide said, “No go. Not their fault. They are soldiers. They would be in terrible trouble if they let anyone through.”

“You told me,” said Dad glumly.

“It was worth a try,” said the Guide. “This way would have been much quicker and easier, if it had worked. They might have had orders to let aid workers through. You weren't to know. …”

“But now we've walked further, and have the more difficult route to follow. We could have been halfway up the mountain by now,” said Dad, still cross with himself.

“In this wind,” pointed out Mum.

“Let's get out of it a minute so we can think and see
about the child's feet, eh, Tiger?” said the Guide, smiling at me in spite of everything.

I felt Mum and Dad pull themselves together.

“Where's shelter? Lead on,” said Dad, and the Guide nudged the donkey's neck with his shoulder, and led us off the road toward a rocky outcrop at the base of the mountains.

When you have sore feet, it seems worse to start walking again, even for a little way, once you have stopped. But I kept my eye on the rocky outcrop and knew that once there I could stop at last, so I hurried and even hopped the last few steps.

Turning in behind the first huge rock wall was wonderful. The noise of the wind didn't stop, but at least it wasn't nearly as loud, and couldn't touch us at all here. It felt as though someone had put on the heating—it wasn't exactly warm behind the wall, but it certainly wasn't so cold. I sat down on the dry rock floor and couldn't wait to get my sandals off from over my thick socks.

The adults bent as if to help and nearly knocked their heads together, but sensibly decided to leave it to the owner of the sandals (who would obviously be the most expert at undoing them) to get them off.

“Ah!” I said when they were off, and stretched out my feet in the thick socks and wiggled my toes.

“Is that better?” said Dad, amused, but the Guide didn't smile. He crouched down and carefully, slowly, began to peel off one of the socks, rolling it down from the top. I put out my hand to stop him, as there was no way I wanted to get my feet any colder—once cold, I was sure they'd never warm up again. But Mum saw something as she looked down at my feet that was blocked from my view by the Guide's hand, and sucked in her breath through her teeth.

“What?” I asked, pulling back my hand and leaning forward for a better look.

Under the sock where the straps of the sandals had been were ugly, deep red weals in the skin. “Ouch,” I said, as the Guide had to unstick the sock gently from parts where the skin had oozed.

I was pleased that the damage was so impressive. You know how much something can hurt, but there's nothing to show for it, sometimes. It just doesn't seem fair. Now both socks were off, I leant back and admired my feet. I thought of the pain. Yes, my feet looked like they should if they had felt like that, if you know what I mean.

“That's a trace of mud, there,” said Dad, looking closely at the damage. “Tiger! Did you clean and
dry
these feet really well before we set off the other day, when they were covered in mud from the puddle?”

“Yes, of course I did!” I said crossly. I was looking forward to plenty of sympathy for these feet, not blame.

“As well as you could, I'm sure,” said Mum, digging about in her backpack for the first-aid kit and giving Dad a flattening sort of look.

“There's sand in here as well,” the Guide added, to back me up, as he shook out my socks. “That has made it worse.”

Then Mum said, “This will make it feel better,” as
grown-ups
always
say, before they slop on something that you can guarantee will immediately make whatever hurts, hurt a lot more (at least for a moment), and I held my breath as she mopped around with stuff out of a bottle.

I managed to hold my breath until the feeling that I had just put my feet into a hot kettle, and somehow a block of ice at the same time, had passed. The pain then settled down to a nice stinging throb, so I let my breath out and said, “Thanks, that's much better,” and she smiled and looked pleased.

The Guide, who had been looking at me, had to bite his lip to stop a grin. I bet he had some better medicine in his bag, probably made out of mashed-up root or something, which wouldn't have hurt half as much, but I knew he couldn't say anything, as after all Mum and Dad knew medicine, and had all the modern things in their bags.

“If I may say so,” he said carefully, looking at my parents, “these feet, no matter what medicine you put
upon them, should not be walked on for a while. The skin needs time.”

“I agree,” said Dad. “But we can't stay here for days. We haven't the food and water for one thing, especially now we are going across the mountains. Let's rest up for today and tonight, and tomorrow I'll carry you—eh, Tiger?”

No one said anything to disagree, so that's what we did. The Guide set up his fire again toward evening, as the wind roared around either side of us. The donkey huddled in close for as long as it could, but eventually started to wander out into the wind.

“She needs food,” said the Guide, looking worried for the first time. “She doesn't want to go out in this any more than we do. But I don't see anything for her to eat out there anyway. I'll let her have some of her rations. She'll have to find a puddle to drink from.”

Digging about in the donkey's packs, the Guide found a bundle of what looked like dead grass and pulled off a section. The donkey must have heard,
even above the wind, because suddenly it peered around the rock with its large, fluffy ears stuck forward, and the sort of expression on its face that your dog makes at teatime.

We all laughed, even the Guide, and I realized that we hadn't laughed, or even smiled, for what seemed like ages. It felt so good, we all looked at each other and laughed a bit more, for no reason, and the donkey just stood and chewed and looked at us like we were all mad.

When Mum started putting the porridge ready to cook for tea, the Guide suddenly got to his feet and went off into the wind without saying anything. Dad shrugged at Mum and I thought, He's probably decided anything's better than eating that again, even dying in a sandstorm.

But in only a few minutes he was back, with a dead rabbit by the back legs. I turned away when he took out his knife but by the time the cooking was done, the smell was so delicious I was probably making the same dog's face as the donkey had earlier.

We ate, and it tasted like hot, roast chicken, and that's what I told myself it was. I didn't care if he wanted to cook
lizard;
if it tasted like this, I'd eat it. We all ate a little porridge too, to fill up on and not to hurt Mum's feelings.

Before I went to sleep I took out a cupful of the fish's water, in case it was stale, and poured some fresh in. He darted around a little, which cheered me up, and some of his old color shone as he moved in and out of the light.

“Do you think he needs food?” I asked the Guide.

“When it is so cold, no. He will manage for a few days. He has special food, where he comes from. I think if you put anything in, it will just spoil his water,” he replied, and I was sure he was right.

I slept really well that night, partly because my feet were so warm. Mum had bandaged them so that they looked huge and they had a pair of Dad's socks over the top, which were the only ones big enough to fit.

In the night, I woke up again, and I couldn't think why. It wasn't a noise … and then I realized. It was
that the noise had stopped. The roaring of the wind had disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived. Tonight, there was a moon, and the sky was inky blue and starred, instead of black.

Dad and the Guide were talking again. I wondered if the Guide ever slept. For some reason, I felt that he might be the sort of person who didn't need to—in any case, he was sensible and would surely do whatever was right. But as for Dad—if children weren't allowed to sit up all night talking, I certainly didn't think he should. I knew he did get tired if he didn't have enough sleep and hadn't he said he was going to carry me tomorrow?

Just like the first time I'd met him, the Guide seemed to read my thoughts, though he couldn't have known I was awake.

“You should rest now, and leave the worrying to me. That is my job,” said the Guide. “You are going to carry the child tomorrow, you said. Why not let the donkey—”

Dad interrupted.

“No, the donkey has enough. It's my fault about Tiger's feet. I should have checked they were dry myself. I was in too much of a hurry packing, because I'd left everything too late. And I've made us all walk further. …”

“You blame yourself for everything. You blame yourself for even coming to this country with your family in the first place, don't you?” said the Guide, sounding tired for the first time.

“I suppose—yes, well, it does bother me sometimes,” Dad muttered.

“Yet your wife told me it was she who suggested you all came here—she who made the decision.”

“I'd forgotten. Yes, she did, it's true. But I could have changed her mind, I was as keen. …”

The Guide chuckled. “Are you sure? You could have changed her mind?”

“Well,” said Dad, and he chuckled too.

“Listen,” said the Guide, “you came here to help. In helping other people, you have had to put yourselves, your family, at some risk. I know why you stayed on
longer than your embassy advised. You were seeing that some child had their medicine before they left for the refugee camps, that some old man who had lost his foot through a land mine had healed enough to travel. I hear about these things.”

Dad looked down at the fire and said nothing.

“You came to do a job. If you had left any sooner, you would not have finished it properly. Your child has had a gift from all this that other children, staying safe in their country, will not have had.” He paused, then said simply, “You cannot be other than you are.”

BOOK: Fish
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