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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  • First Published:
    May 2005, 144 pages
    Aug 2006, 144 pages

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"We will show that these chickens, unwilling captives of the accuser and her cruel family, begged my client, this honest fox, to help them escape their servitude, to live as free citizens of these woods, like all of you here."

"All lies!" hissed Nubia, lunging at the owl, who flapped its arms (or were they wings?) and hissed back. They glared at each other. The owl took refuge behind the fox. Gisella glanced at the fox, and it looked right into her eyes. She looked away.

"First witness," said the judge. One of the small people that ringed the court came shyly but quickly into the center of the clearing. If Gisella looked at him from the corners of

her eyes, he didn't fade away. He had pretty little features, skin and eyes the color of new leaves, and long dark green hair like pond grass.

"Say your name," said the judge, "and what you witnessed and when."

"I am called Quick," said the little person, quickly, each word a different note, like singing. "This morning before the dew was dry, I saw a fox drag a chicken into this clearing, rip it open, and devour it; she cracked its bones, sucked them dry, and ate them, too, and then licked her paws and whiskers. I saw it all. It's all I saw."

"Did this chicken," asked Nubia, "seem eager or willing to be the fox's breakfast?"

"I didn't ask," said the little person.

"Was this chicken named May, or was it named April?"

"It didn't say."

"No further questions," said Nubia. The owl waddled out from behind the fox and paced the grass.

"Was the fox you saw this fox?" it asked.

"I have no idea," said the witness. "All foxes look alike to me." And he faded away and was gone.

"Next witness," said the judge. A chicken's head looked warily out of the fox's hole, this way and that. It was April.

"April," called Gisella. "It's me, Gisella, come to take you home." The hen looked at her, and then looked away. She walked out before the judge. She appeared nervous.

"Say your name," said the spider, "and how you came to be here."

"April, your worship," she clucked and muttered. "In the early dark of dawn, I was awakened by a voice whispering in the hen dialect, ‘I'm here to free you so your eggs will not be eaten and you can have chicks that are free, and their chicks, and their chicks' chicks will be free.' I asked this voice, ‘What is "free"?' and it answered, ‘Free is what every creature longs to be and has a right to be.' Then something took me firmly but gently by the neck and carried me out of the chicken house, just as the others were waking. It was the fox. I'd always heard horrible stories about foxes—what they do to chickens—but I wasn't afraid. I don't know why not. It brought me here and hid me in its hole." April began to cluck and anxiously turn in circles. "I don't like talking like this, answering questions. I'm just a poor hen!" She was becoming more and more upset. The owl person waddled up to her and tried to calm her.

"Now, now, we know it's been an ordeal. We appreciate what you've been through. We're here to help. Just one more question, one more, that's all. Did this fox harm or hurt you in any way?"

"No, no she didn't."

"No further questions," said the owl, and stepped back. Nubia took her turn.

"Were you ever mistreated by this girl, Gisella, or any member of her family? Didn't they always feed you and house you and care for you?"

"Yes! Yes!" screeched the hen. "But they took my eggs! Every day I laid, and she came and took my eggs! And then, when one of us became old, or injured, one of her family would come and wring our neck! What do I know? I'm only a chicken! They feed us and they keep us stupid! April ran, madly clucking, back into the fox's hole. The lawyers and the defendant all stared after her.

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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