The next morning was rest day. No school. But there was still plenty of work to be done. Nathan and Julie helped out with the family jobs. This morning, he took a batch of seed corn over to his dad in the field while Julie helped turn over the soil in the garden with her mum.
And yet, along the edge of the forest, the line of trees called out to the children, ‘Come play!’ Once they’d finished all their work, all the young people in their gang, Julie, Nathan, Amina and Ella, David and Biswas, gulped down their food and went straight to their favourite place in the forest. They’d made a swing there from hemp and wound it round a thick, outhanging branch from one of the tall beeches. You could swing way out over the pool with a good push or kick
Sarah shouted after them as they ran towards the trees, ‘Don’t go anywhere near the fields, do you hear me?’ ‘And watch out for bears,’ Julie called back, turning her neck to one side, as she ran. ‘We know, mum. We won’t…’ and they laughed and ran off along the track into the heart of the forest.
Once they got there, Biswas said ‘Anyone got any food? Let’s eat!’ He was always hungry. The sun’s rays dappled the trees and them. By now, it was the middle of the afternoon. So, they shared what they’d brought and started talking. ‘What are we going to do then?’, asked Amina. ‘We could go deeper into the forest, looking for bears’, said Nathan. ‘You go bear-spotting. I’m going to find sweetcorn,’ Julie said. ‘But we can’t,’ said Amina. ‘It’s dangerous.’ ’Well, we’ve been fine so far and, anyway, it’s better than getting lost in the forest.’ ‘I don’t think so,’ David said. But they split up, regardless. Biswas and Julie went off to harvest sweetcorn. And the others walked deeper into the forest but not before they agreed to meet back at their glade in a little over an hours’ time for sweetcorn and foraged wild berries.
The hour went quickly. When they met up again with berries and sweetcorn in hand, they sat on the grass near the water’s edge and feasted. Biswas used his knife to cut the cobs in half and passed them round. Each of them rubbed the sweet berries all over the cob. It made for a lot of sticky juice on their hands and faces but it was worth it.’ Oh, this is so good!’, cried Ella. They could wipe it off later in the pool. And as they ate, they told stories of their bravery in avoiding capture, slipping under the fence and escaping detection by the farmer’s evil eye. He patrolled his fields regularly and they knew if he caught them, they would be in big trouble. Jail even, it was rumoured! But he was too slow and they were too clever for him, they told each other. And the rest spoke of climbing up tall trees, reaching into the top branches to gain ripest and most succulent dark fruits.
It was after they’d gone into the water to cool down from the hot sun that Amina felt something was wrong. She bobbed under the surface for a moment. ‘Help,’ she managed to say softly, but no one heard her, before disappearing under the water again. The others were all busy doing their own thing and hadn’t noticed her. Although the pond wasn’t deep, they all knew even shallow water could be dangerous. Amina snorted to the surface. Julie and Biswas reacted first, racing over to her, placing their hands under the arms and pulling her up, slippery in the mud, and out onto the bank. Somehow, they managed to get her onto the grass where she coughed up brown water and vomited. Suddenly, she doubled up in agony. ‘Amina, what’s wrong? Tell us what’s the matter?’ ‘My stomach is killing me. It hurts. It really hurts…’ And she screamed again. ‘We’d better get her home’, Julie said, looking at Biswas.
But Amina couldn’t stand. She kept bending down in pain, her arms holding her stomach. ‘Put her on my back’, said Biswas. ‘I’ll carry her and go and get her mum.’ David ran off along the track towards the village. A loud growl through the trees on the other side of the pool made them jump. A brown bear was staring at them, sniffing the air. But Biswas couldn’t lift Amina on his own. She was too heavy and kept slipping off. The bear was making its way around the edge of the pond. Ella saw a split log lay on the floor. So, they lay her down on that as the bear reared high onto its hind legs and growled. ‘Come on, grab an end!’, ordered Julie. They carried her away from the water and away from the bear, as fast as they could. Ella picked up a fallen branch of a tree and held it out pointing at the bear. The breeze threw its scent across to her and she gagged. She glanced over her shoulder. They’d got to the curve in the track. She threw the log at the bear and ran after her friends, panting up the slope by the time she caught them. Amina was breathing erratically; short, staccato breaths and then it would stop. What were the dark red blotches appearing on her legs and arms. The children couldn’t help glancing at their own bare arms.
It took so long to get home. Amina’s mum, Nighat, was bringing in the washing. They called to her. She turned and dropped the basket of bedlinen on the ground. She rushed to her daughter and lifted her off the log. ‘What’s happened? What happened to her?’ she cried out. ‘Biswas, her dad is working in the fields. Go get him quickly…now! Go!’ And she carried her child, limp in her arms, muttering nonsence words inside the house and put her straight to her bed.
She put the kettle on and took clean cloths out of the cupboard. Who could she call? Not a doctor. There wasn’t one, not in this village. The nearest one was over an hour away but it would cost too much, anyway. Without insurance, which they couldn’t afford, they were all vulnerable to falling ill. Already that year, three people, two of them children, had died of a mysterious sickness in the village.
She went to the door and called Julie’s mum, Sara. Everyone turned to Sarah in an emergency. And then she would send for Fatima, Biswas’s mum. She was the village gossip, though dread to think she would be needed. She looked down again at her little girl, shivering, breathing hoarsely. Ruby red blisters were appearing under her finger nails. She didn’t like what she saw. She went outside and called over to her neighbour, ‘Sara, come quick! Sara, something’s wrong with Amina and I don’t know what to do. Come, help us!’
Part two of four