"Well, the rain had poured into it and just cut off the side of the hill--all the hill on the outside of the crack just fell away. And the rain made some of the earth into mud, and some of it was in big lumps and rocks. The whole lot fell down and covered the houses on the edge of the village. It's called a landslide when that happens. We did get some people out. . . ." And then he stopped and just looked into his cup, and Mum said it was time for him to try and sleep again.
That rain was the rain that had left the pond. The water was drying up everywhere, and the few hungry animals left quickly ate any tiny green shoot that appeared. Instead of a dusty brown country, we were in a muddy brown country. And it started to get colder. This country was very cold at night, and cold all the time in the winter. The dead bushes were soon all gathered for burning. Trees on the hills had been cut down for firewood long ago. Dad said, if that hadn't happened, the trees' roots would have helped stop the land moving when the rains came.
We'd been short of water before because there had been no rain for so long. Now everyone was short of water, though it lay in big pools and filled ditches all around us, because it was bad, poisonous water. People who drank it became ill and some died. It wouldn't be so bad if you boiled it, Mum said, but where were the people to get firewood to make the fires to boil it?
I was telling you how bad it was for the people here. And if the weather wasn't bad enough, there was some kind of war going on, though I never heard or saw it.
"Everyone is so sick and hungry and weak. How could they fight?" I asked Dad. He just said, "If there is any food, or any water, the soldiers will always get it first. They are not as sick and weak as the people we see here every day."
So now you understand why I was gloomy, just before I saw the fish. We'd had only some kind of boiled porridge to eat for days now. The fact that there wasn't very much of it was the only good thing about it, as far as I could see, although I was hungry all the time. We followed every meal of this with a vitamin C tablet for dessert. This was the closest thing I had to a sweet, and I made it last as long as possible by sucking it very slowly.
Then my playmates from the village just disappeared one day. All the families and orphans and widows were leaving. Mum and Dad were busy in the day as never before, but more worried and serious in the evenings. They sat up late talking, talking.
"Why is everyone going? Where are they going?" I asked.
"They have heard that the war is coming here. And there is no food left here anyway. They are trying to cross the border into the next country."
"Then they will be all right?" I asked. "Why don't we do that?"
"The next country is being kind and letting them in, but they need to find somewhere proper to live. They've made a refugee camp, but it's just tents and huts. There is still not enough food, water and medicine for everyone, although the charities are sending it as fast as they can. Our people back at home have been telling us to leave for some time. We could go back there. But we wanted to stay and help for as long as there were people here that needed help," Mum explained. She looked worried, as always, but now as she looked across at Dad, there was something else in her eyes.
"Why are you looking like I do when I'm fibbing?" I said suspiciously.
Mum looked surprised and then she laughed and took my face in her hands.
"Oh, I'm telling you the truth. It's just, it's all right for me and Dad to risk staying on. And we want to do the right thing by all our neighbors here. They can't just pack it in and go home--this is their home. But we have to think about you, too. And staying here is not good for you. It's difficult. We hoped things would get better. We thought we could stick it out. But now it's not if we leave, it's when."
Excerpted from Fish by L. S. Matthews Copyright© 2004 by L. S. Matthews. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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