'If my sister stays behind, I stay behind.'
Maria piped up. 'I'm not small! I want to race.'
'You shut up!'
Skull settled it. She could come, but she wouldn't be in the race.
We dumped our bikes behind the drinking trough and set off.
That was why I was up on that hill.
I put Maria's trainer back on.
'Can you walk?'
'No. It hurts too much.'
'Wait a minute.' I blew twice on her leg. Then I dug my hands in the hot earth. I picked up a small amount, spat on it and spread it on her ankle. 'That'll make it better.' I knew it wouldn't work. Earth was good for bee stings and nettles, not twisted ankles, but Maria might fall for it. 'Is that better?'
She wiped her nose with her arm. 'A bit.'
'Can you walk?'
I took her hand. 'Let's get going then. Come on, we're last.'
We set off towards the top. Every five minutes Maria had to sit down to rest her leg. Luckily a bit of wind had got up, which improved things. It rustled in the wheat, making a noise that sounded like breathing. Once I thought I saw an animal pass by us. Black, swift, silent. A wolf? There weren't any wolves in our area. Maybe a fox or a dog.
The climb was steep and never-ending. All I had in front of my eyes was wheat, but when I started to see a slice of sky I understood that it wasn't far now, the top was there, and without even realizing it we were standing on the summit.
There was absolutely nothing special about it. It was covered with wheat like all the rest. Under our feet was the same red, baked earth. Above our heads the same blazing sun.
I looked at the horizon. A milky haze veiled things. You couldn't see the sea. But you could see the other, lower hills, and Melichetti's farm with its pigsties and the gravina, and you could see the white road cutting across the fields, that long road we had cycled down to get there. And, tiny in the distance, you could see the hamlet where we lived. Acqua Traverse. Four little houses and an old country villa lost in the wheat. Lucignano, the neighbouring village, was hidden by the mist.
My sister said: 'I want to look too. Let me look.'
I lifted her on my shoulders, though I was so tired I could hardly stand. Who knows what she saw without her glasses.
'Where are the others?'
Where they had passed, the regularity of the ears of wheat had gone, many stalks were bent in half and some were broken. We followed the tracks that led towards the other side of the hill.
Maria squeezed my hand and dug her nails into my skin.
'Ugh! How horrible!'
They had done it. They had impaled the hen. It was there on top of a stick. Legs dangling, wings outspread. As if, before yielding up its soul to the Creator, it had abandoned itself to its executioners. Its head hung on one side like a ghastly blood-soaked pendant. Heavy red drops dripped from the parted beak. And the end of the stick emerged from the breast. A swarm of metallized flies buzzed around it and clustered on the eyes, on the blood.
A shiver ran up my back.
We went on and after crossing the backbone of the hill we began to descend.
Where on earth had the others got to? Why had they gone down that way?
We walked another twenty metres and found out.
The hill wasn't round. Behind, it lost its faultless perfection. It lengthened out into a kind of hump that wound its way gently down till it joined the plain. In the middle there was a narrow, enclosed valley, invisible except from up there or from an aeroplane.
It would be easy to make a clay model of that hill. Just form a ball. Cut it in half. Place one half on the table. Make the other into a sausage, a sort of fat worm, and stick it on behind, leaving a little hollow in the middle.
Excerpted from I'm Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti. Copyright Niccolò Ammaniti 2002 all rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Canongate Publishing. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher.
Translated from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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