Excerpt from The Old Country by Mordicai Gerstein, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Old Country

By Mordicai Gerstein

The Old Country
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  • Hardcover: May 2005,
    144 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2006,
    144 pages.

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The Old Country

Gisella's brother had taught her how to shoot. She aimed at the fox's chest. She had never killed anything before. She wondered if she could do it now. Her anger at the theft of the chickens and sadness at the loss of her brother were gone. She was alone, aiming an arrow at a fox who looked her in the eyes.

"What about my trial?" said the fox. "And why can't you look me in the eye?"

Gisella was startled. A talking fox! She had a small, nasal voice, like a little violin. An enchanted fox, thought Gisella. Then anger replaced surprise. "You stole our chickens," she said. "Give them back!"

"But, my dear girl," said the fox, "I didn't steal them. My lawyer will prove it, although really, you're the one who should do the proving. I'm completely innocent."

"How can there be a trial?" asked Gisella. "Where's the court? Where're the judge and jury?"

"We'll be the jury!" cawed a harsh voice, and she looked up to see a large crow perched on a branch above the fox. And on branches all around, there were other birds of all kinds. "We'll be the jury!" they sang in a chorus.

"And I am the judge," said a voice like a whisper of wind, small, but every word ringing in the open space. Gisella saw a dot of light descending in the middle of the clearing. It was a pure white spider lowering itself on its thread. It stopped at about Gisella's height and hung there, seeming to float in air.

"Order in the court," it said.

Around the edge of the clearing she now saw animals of all kinds—squirrels, hedgehogs, deer, snakes and toads, a wolf, and a huge black bear—all watching her. Mixed among them were little people—some no taller than a toadstool—young and old, with pale green skin and pale green eyes, all dressed in soft shades of dark green and brown. They sat quietly and watched, but if Gisella looked directly at one, it disappeared. She sat down also and tried not to tremble.

"Lawyer for the plaintiff!" called the spider judge. Into the grassy clearing bounded Nubia, the cat. Gisella had never been so glad to see anyone. Or so surprised.

"I was sorry to have to leave you alone," he said. "I was preparing our case. Don't worry, the facts are on our side."

"But how is it you can speak? And how is it I can understand the fox and the birds, and the spider judge?"

"This clearing is a place where worlds meet. A kind of crossroads. The human world, the animal world, and the invisible world are all open to each other here, and in other places like this. Here, we all understand each other."

"And how did you get to be a lawyer?" Gisella asked him.

"Night school," he said, and sat beside her with his tail curled around him.

"Lawyer for the accused," said the judge. The owl-faced stranger waddled into the clearing, bowed to the judge, and sat near the fox. Was it a person or a very large horned owl? Gisella couldn't be sure.

"Begin with the accusations," the judge ordered.

Nubia gave his tail a lick and began to pace back and forth before the judge.

"Your honor," he said, "birds of the jury, we will easily prove that this . . . fox . . . ," and he glared and hissed at the fox, "has stolen my client's plump, juicy chickens in order to dine on them. In other words, to eat them—all—up!"

"Objection!" screeched the owl-person. "That's a lie!"

"Order," whispered the judge. "The defense may now respond."

The owl-person arranged his cloak, which seemed to be made of feathers, and paced before them.

From The Old Country by Mordecai Gerstein. Copyright 2005 Mordecai Gerstein. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Roaring Brook Press.

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