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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"Next witness," said the judge.

"Where is May?" asked Gisella. "Where is my other hen? She should be a witness, too!"

"She is," said the judge. "Will the hen called May please step forward?"

"I can't," said a muffled voice. It came from the fox, who belched and then looked all around, as if to see where the voice and belch had come from.

"I'm May," said the voice from the fox, whose mouth never moved. She looked up at the trees like a ventriloquist misdirecting the audience. "But I'm barely May," the voice continued. "Little by little, I feel myself becoming fox. A part of me is becoming her liver. Another part is becoming her tongue; I'm even becoming her teeth. It's a very odd sensation."

"Does it hurt, May?" Gisella called to her.

"Not really, not now," she answered. "It hurt when she woke me in the chill before dawn. She dragged me away into the blackness of the woods, to this place. And here, she devoured me."

"Would you say," asked Nubia, "that she ate you all up?"

"I would," said May. "It was strangely calming, for I felt no pain. As it was happening, I suddenly remembered hatching from an egg. And this was like being stuffed back into an egg. Like being born in reverse. And now . . . I'm becoming . . . fox. Good-bye . . . good-bye . . ." The voice became less and less distinct and faded away.

"Good-bye, May," Gisella sobbed. "Good-bye." May had been her favorite hen. "You are a murderer!" Gisella screamed at the fox. "A thief and a murderer!"

"Order in this court," whispered the spider. "Fox, do you have a name?"

"My name," said the fox, "is Flame."

"How do you answer the charges against you?"

"I am a fox," said the fox. Gisella waited for more. There was silence.

"Is that your defense?" asked the spider.

"Yes," said the fox. "I am a fox. I live by my nose, by my teeth and feet. By my wits. How can I steal? How can one creature own another—except to eat it? Don't we all belong to ourselves? Until someone else—someone bigger, faster, hungrier, smarter—catches us? And eats us? I didn't steal. I hunted. I didn't murder. I fed. I am accused of being a fox. If that's a crime, then so is being an owl, or a cat . . . or a spider. Or a girl." She looked at Gisella. Everyone looked at her.

Boom . . . boom, boom . . . She felt it in the earth.

"Do you, the plaintiff, Gisella, have anything to say?" the judge asked her.

She stood up. "I believe the fox. We each do what we must to live. I love our chickens and do my best to protect them. She loves them in her way, and does her best to catch them. The jury will decide if these are crimes. But if I catch her taking our chickens again, I will kill her. I give her fair warning. And if that's a crime, do to me what you must."

The birds of the jury chattered and squawked for a long time while Gisella waited. They rattled and ruffled their feathers. Then they became quiet. The large crow coughed and cleared his throat.

"Jury," said the spider, "have you reached a verdict?"

"We have a verdict your honor," said the crow.

"How do you find the defendant: guilty or not guilty?"

"We find the defendant, Flame—the fox whom we hate and fear because she kills and devours birds and small animals—we find her to be innocent."

"Court dismissed," said the spider. "It's time for my tea." She rode quickly up her thread like a sunbeam, and in that instant, everyone else was gone. The clearing was still and empty, except for the fox, and Nubia and Gisella. She looked at the fox and the fox looked at her. They looked into each other's eyes, and this time, Gisella did not look away.

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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