英文小说

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The Stolen Child  失窃的孩子-The Stolen Child

The full moon created a halo behind Igel's head and evoked the memory of saints and icons in the church I could barely remember. By his side stood Luchóg. Both were dressed for travel in jackets and shoes to ward off the frost.

"Aniday, get up and get dressed. You're coming with us this morning."

"Morning?" I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. "It's the middle of the night."

"The sun'll be up in no time. You'd best be quick," Luchóg advised.

We stole along the hidden trails through the forest, leaping like rabbits, scrambling through brambles, covering ground with great speed and no pause. Clouds passed beneath the moon, first hiding and then revealing the landscape. The trail led across empty roads, our feet sounding on the pavement. We darted through open spaces, through a field of cornstalks that rustled and hummed as we rolled between rows, past a barn big against the dark sky and a farmhouse yellow in the skittish moonlight. In her stall, a cow lowed at our fleeting pres­ence. A dog barked once. Past the farm, another patch of trees, another road, and then we were crossing a stream from the dizzying height of a bridge. On the far side, Igel led us into a ditch that paralleled the road, and we crouched low in its cover. The sky began to lighten to a deep violet. An engine coughed and soon a milk truck passed by on the road above.

"We started too late," Igel said. "He'll have to be more careful now. Aniday, this morning we will test how far you've come to being one of us."

Looking down the road, I spied the milk truck stopping at a dreary bun­galow on the outskirts of town. Next door stood a small general store with a single gasoline pump out front. The milkman, all in white, descended from his perch and carried his basket to the side door, returning briskly with two glass empties that clinked against the wire. Caught up in the scene, I nearly forgot to follow my comrades as they slithered ahead. I reached them in a culvert not ten yards from the gas station, and they were whispering and pointing in dire conspiracy. The object of desire began to take shape in the gathering light. Atop the pump, a coffee mug shone like a white beacon.

"Go get that cup," Igel ordered. "Don't be seen."

The rising sun pushed away the deeper hues of the night, and any hesi­tation on my part risked discovery. It was a simple task to sprint across the grass and pavement, grab the cup, and dash back to our hiding place. Fear held me back.

"Take off your shoes," Igel advised. "They'll never hear you."

I slipped off my brogans and ran to the pump, its red-winged horse vaulting toward the heavens, and I grasped the mug and turned to go, when an unexpected noise froze me to the spot. Glass on glass. I imagined the sta­tion owner reaching into the milk box, detecting a peculiar motion at the gas pump, and hollering to stop me. But no such thing happened. A screen door whined and closed with a bang. I swallowed and trotted back to my comrades, holding up the mug in triumph.

"You done well, little treasure."

"While you dallied in the open"—Igel stared down—"I went ahead for the milk."

The bottle was already open. Without shaking down the half-inch of cream, Igel poured me some first, and we washed down the half-gallon like three drunkards, toasting the dawn. Cold milk settled into my stomach, swell­ing my belly, causing me to swoon and drowse away the morning with my fellow thieves in a ditch.

At midday, we woke from our slumber and moved closer to town in measured steps, hiding among the shadows, halting at the hint of any people. Stopping only at places that appeared to be empty, homes with nobody inside, we pried, snooped, and hunted. The three of us clambered over a low stone wall and stole armloads of fruit from a pear tree. Each bite was a sweet sin, and we took far more than we could eat. I hated to abandon the pears, but we tossed most of them back over the wall and into the orchard, leaving them to rot in the sun. From a clothesline of drying laundry, we each took a clean, fresh shirt, and I swiped a white sweater for Speck. Luchóg pocketed one sock from a hanging pair. "Tradition." He grinned like the Cheshire Cat. "The mystery of the missing sock from every washing day."

As daylight began its slow fade, the children appeared with their books and satchels, and an hour or two later came the fathers in their big automo­biles. We waited for sundown, and after that, lights on and lights out. Good-nights begot goodnights, and houses popped into darkness like bubbles in a chain. Here and there a lamp burned, betraying perhaps some lonesome soul reading past midnight or a wandering insomniac or forgetful bachelor. Like a battlefield general, Igel studied these signs of time before we moved out into the streets.

Years had passed since I'd last looked through the storefront window of the toy shop or felt the rough surface of brick corners. The town felt other-worldly, yet I could not pass by a single place without experiencing a flood of associations and memories. At the gates of the Catholic church, I heard Latin raised by a phantom chorus. The motionless candy cane in front of the bar­bershop brought back smells of witch hazel and the clip of scissors. Mailboxes on the corner reminded me of valentines and birthday cards. My school con­jured a picture of children streaming out by the dozens from its doubledoors, screaming for summer. For all their familiarity, however, the streets unsettled me with their neat corners and straight lines, the dead weight of walls, the clear boundaries of windows. The repetitive architecture bore down like a walled maze. The signs and words and admonitions—STOP, EAT HERE, SAME DAY DRY CLEANING; YOU DESERVE A COLOR TV—did not illuminate any mystery, but only left me indifferent to reading their constant messages. At last, we came to our target.

Luchóg climbed up to a window and slipped through a space that seemed much too small and narrow. He collapsed like a mouse going under the door. Standing in the alleyway, Igel and I kept lookout until he heard the soft click of the front lock; he guided us up the stairs to the market. As he opened the door, Luchóg gave us a wan grin, and Igel tousled his hair. Silently, we proceeded down the row of goods, past the Ovaltine and Bosco, cereal in bright boxes, cans of vegetables, fruit, fish, and meat. Every new food tempted me, but Igel would not allow any delay, and he ordered me in a whisper to "come here right now." They crouched by bags on the bottom row, and Igel ripped one open with a slice of his sharp thumbnail. He licked his fingertip, dipped it in the powder, then tasted it.

"Bah ... flour."

He moved a few paces and repeated the procedure.

"Worse ... sugar."

"That stuff will kill you," Luchóg said.

"Excuse me," I interrupted, "but I can read. What are you looking for?"

Luchóg looked at me as if the question was the most preposterous thing he'd ever heard. "Salt, man, salt."

I pointed to the bottom shelf, observing that even without the gift of language, one might recognize the picture of the old-fashioned girl under her umbrella, leaving behind a trail of salt. "When It Rains, It Pours," I said, but they seemed unable to take my meaning. We loaded our rucksacks with as much as could be carried and left the store by the front door, a deflating de­parture, considering the smorgasbord inside. Our cargo made the journey home longer and more arduous, and we did not reach camp until daybreak. The salt, as I would later discover, was used to preserve meat and fish for the lean months, but at the time, I felt as if we had searched the wide seas for treasure and sailed into port with a chest filled with sand.

When she was handed the new sweater, Speck's eyes widened with sur­prise and delight. She peeled off the tattered jersey she had worn for months and lifted the sweater over her head, sliding her arms inside like two eels. The brief sight of her bare skin unsettled me, and I looked away. She sat on a blan­ket, curled up her legs beneath her bottom, and bade me sit beside her.

"Tell me, O Great Hunter, about your visit to the old world. Recount your mishaps and brave deeds. Give us a story."

"There's not much to say. We went to the store for salt. But I saw a school and a church, and we swiped a bottle of milk." I reached into my pocket and brought out a soft, overripe pear. "I brought this back, too."

She set the pear on the ground. "Tell me more. What else did you see? How did the world make you feel?"

"Like I was remembering and forgetting at the same time. When I stepped into lamplight, my shadow appeared, sometimes several shadows, but once outside the circle, they all disappeared."

"You've seen shadows before. Brighter lights throw harder shadows."

"It is a strange light, and the world is full of straight lines and edges. The corners of their walls looked as sharp as a knife. It is unreal and a bit scary."

"That's just a trick of your imagination. Write your impressions in your book." Speck fingered the hem of her sweater. "Speaking of books, did you see the library?"

"Library?"

"Where they keep the books, Aniday. You didn't see the library?"

"I had forgotten all about it." But as we talked, I could recall the stacks of well-worn books, the hushing librarian, quiet men and intent women bow­ing forward, reading. My mother had taken me there. My mother. "I used to go there, Speck. They let me take home books and bring them back when I was finished. I got a paper card and signed my name on a slip at the back of the book."

"You remember."

"But I don't remember what I wrote. I didn't write 'Aniday.'"

She picked up the pear and inspected it for soft spots. "Get me a knife, Aniday, and I'll cut this in half. And if you're good, I'll take you to the library to see the books."

Rather than leaving in the middle of the night as before, we walked out of camp at noon on a crisp October day without so much as a fare-thee-well. Luchóg, Speck, and I followed the same trail into town, but we took our time, as if strolling through the park, not wanting to reach the streets until dusk. A broad highway severed the woods, and we had to wait for a long break in the traffic. I scanned the cars on the chance that the lady in the red coat might drive by, but our vantage point was too far from the road to make out any of the drivers.

At the gas station on the edge of town, two boys circled the pump on their bicycles, tracing lazy arcs, enjoying their last fun in the remnant sunlight. Their mother called them for dinner, but before I could see her face, she van­ished behind a closing door. Luchóg leading, we moved across the road in single file. Halfway across the asphalt, he froze and pricked his ears to the west. I heard nothing, but in my bones sensed the electric approach of danger mov­ing quickly as a summer storm. A moment's indecision, and we lost our ad­vantage. Springing from the darkness, the dogs were nearly upon us before Speck grabbed my hand and shouted, "Run!"

Teeth snapping, the pair split to chase us in a melee of barks and growls. The bigger dog, a muscular shepherd, went after Luchóg as he sprinted toward town. Speck and I raced back to the woods, a hound yelping in pursuit. When we reached the trees, she yanked me forward and up, so that I was six feet off the ground before realizing I was climbing a sycamore. Speck turned and faced the dog, which leapt for her, but she stepped to the side, grabbed the beast by the scruff of the neck, and flung it into the bushes. The dog cried in the air, snapped branches when it landed, and scrambled to its feet in great pain and confusion. Looking back over its shoulder at this girl, he tucked his tail between his legs and slunk away.

Coming down the road from the other direction, the German shepherd trotted alongside Luchóg as if he were a longtime pet. They stopped as one in front of us, and the dog wagged its tail and licked Luchóg's fingers. "Do you remember the last changeling, Speck? The German boy?"

"You're not supposed to mention—"

"He came in handy with this bloody canine. I was running for my life when I suddenly remembered that old lullaby our man used to sing."

"'Guten Abend'?"

He sang, "Guten Abend, gut' Nacht, mit Rosen bedacht," and the dog whim­pered. Luchóg stroked the shepherd between the ears. "Turns out music doth soothe the savage beast."

"Breast," she said. "The quote is: 'Music hath charms to soothe the sav­age breast.'"

"Don't tell him," Luchóg burst out. "Auf Wiedersehen, Schatzi. Go on home." The dog trotted off.

"That was scary," I said.

Feigning nonchalance, Luchóg rolled a cigarette. "Could have been worse. Could have been people."

"If we meet somebody, play dumb," Speck instructed. "They'll think we're a bunch of kids and tell us to go on home. Nod your head when I talk and don't say a word." I looked around the empty streets, half hoping for an encounter, but all the people seemed to be inside, at dinner, bathing the chil­dren, getting ready for bed. In many homes, an unearthly blue glow emanated from within.

The library squatted stately in the middle of a tree-lined block. Speck moved as if she had passed this way many times before, and the problem of locked doors was easily circumvented. Luchóg led us around the back to a staircase and pointed out a gap where the concrete had separated from the main wall.

"I don't think I can fit through that. My head's too big, and I'm not that skinny."

"Luchóg is a mouse," Speck said. "Watch and learn."

He told me the secret of softening one's bones. The gist is to think like a mouse or a bat, simply realizing one's own flexibility. "It will hurt the first time, lad, like every good thing, but there's no trick to it. A matter of faith. And practice."

He disappeared into the crack, and Speck followed him, exhaling a sin­gle drawn-out sigh. Pushing through that narrow space hurt more than I can say. The abrasions on my temples took weeks to heal. After softening myself, I had to remember to keep my muscles tense for a while or risk an arm or a leg going limp. But Luchóg was right—with practice, squeezing became sec­ond nature.

Underneath the library, the crawlspace was dark and foreboding, so when Speck struck a match, the flame glowed with hope. She touched the flame to a candlewick, and with the candle lit a hurricane lamp that smelled of must and kerosene. Each successive illumination brought the dimensions and features of the room into sharper focus. The back of the building had been built on a slight slope, so that the floor inclined from our entranceway, where one could stand quite comfortably, rising to the opposite wall, where one could rest only by sitting. I can't tell you how many times I bumped my head on the ceiling by that far wall. The chamber had been made accidentally, a sort of hollow beneath a new addition to the old library building. Since it did not rest on the same foundation, the room was hotter than outside during the summer and bone-cold in the winter. By lamplight I could see that some­one had added a few homey touches—a brace of rugs, a few drinking vessels, and, in the northwest corner, a sort of easy chair fashioned from salvaged blankets. Luchóg began fiddling with his cigarette pouch, and Speck ordered him out, if he must smoke. Grumbling, he scooted through the crack.

"So what do you think, Aniday? A bit rustic, but still ... civilization."

"It's grand."

"You haven't seen the best part. The whole reason I brought you here." Speck motioned me to follow, and we scuttled up the incline to the back wall. She reached up, turned out a knob, and a panel dropped from the ceiling. In a flash, she hoisted herself up through the hole and was gone. I knelt on the spot, waiting for her return, looking up through the empty space. All at once, her face appeared in the frame.

"Are you coming or not?" she whispered.

I followed her into the library. The pale light from our chamber below dissipated in the room, but I could still make out—my heart leapt at the sight—row after row, shelf above shelf, floor to ceiling, a city of books. Speck turned to me and asked, "Now, what shall we read first?"

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