At home in Ballyroan, in the single-story cottage that stood beside the sea, in the bed she shared with her older sister, eight-year-old Greta Cahill woke before dawn to a sound that was not the ocean, was not the animals bawling into the wind, was not a slammed gate, a clanging cowbell, or the rain beating on the gable. The sound was different, it was a first, and to hear it better Greta pushed the layers of blankets away from her shoulders and sat up.
"Youre letting in the cold," Johanna said into the dark without whispering, and tugged at the blankets Greta had pushed away. As they struggled, a faint whiff of salmon stopped Gretas hands. She had forgotten that part of last nights catch was lined up on a shallow tray and resting in the emptied top drawer of the dresser she and Johanna shared. Greta pictured the six flat bodies in a neat row--tails to the back, heads to the front, all split along the backbone and buried in salt. The smell was barely noticeable so far, but Greta knew that in a few more hours the delicate tang of the drying fish would be like an itch inside her nose that could not be scratched. The salt would pull the water from the salmons river-logged bodies, and it would be Johannas job to drain the brine with Greta looking on and their mother standing behind saying, "Are you watching, Greta? Are you seeing how your sister does it?"
"Christ," Johanna said, and pressed her face to her pillow. Greta knew what her sister was thinking. Last night, late, after listening to the usual activity at the back door and then in the kitchen, and after following the tsk-tsk of their mothers slippers as she scurried around the cottage to the other hiding places, Johanna had sat up in bed just as Lily opened their door and said shed not have any fish in her room, thank you very much.
Holding the tray flat so the salt wouldnt spill, Lily had set the lantern on the floor, placed the tray in the drawer, and reached over to give Johanna a lug. Smart, fast, her hand fell from the dark space above their bed and caught Johanna square on the cheek. There were salmon in drawers all over the cottage and in the highest cabinet of the press in the hall.
Now Johanna flipped over to her back as Greta worked to identify the sound that had woken her. "There was blood left last time," Johanna said. "She says theyre all cleaned, but--"
Greta put her hand over Johannas mouth and held a finger in the air. "Listen," she said. Then Johanna heard it too. Greta could tell by the way her sisters back went rigid and her head lifted from the pillow.
"What is it?" Johanna asked. "A horse and cart," she answered herself a second later, and jumped out of bed to go to the window. "Coming fast." It was bouncing violently on the stones and dips in the road, the wood of the cart splintering as it slammed against the iron hitch. For a half second here and there the world went silent, and Greta cringed in expectation of the airborne cart landing with a clatter. The racket grew louder as it came closer, rolling toward their cottage like thunder, like a stampede. The bedroom window didnt face the road, but Johanna stayed there, hopping from foot to foot on the wood planks of the floor as she peered through the gray-green light. Just as Greta was about to shout for their mother, they heard the crash, an explosion of wood coming to a sudden halt against stone and hard ground, followed by the everyday sound of a horse galloping away.
"Tom," Greta heard Lily say on the other side of the wall. "Get up."
Johanna opened the door of their bedroom and the cold of the hall swept into the room just as cruelly as if theyd stepped directly outside.
"You stay where you are," Big Tom said when he emerged from his bedroom and saw Johanna. "Dont make me say it twice." He walked over to her, looked over her head to Greta, who was still in bed, and then to every corner of the room. "And keep that drawer well closed."
Copyright © 2009 Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
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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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