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I am David by Anne Holm, , Mammoth edition, in English. After a pause of some years she wrote three novels for adults and then in , she wrote her first book for children, I am David. This book, under the title David. David's entire twelve-year life has been spent in a grisly prison camp in Eastern Europe. But when he is given the chance to escape, he seizes it. David's extraordinary odyssey is dramatically chronicled in Anne Holm's classic about the meaning of freedom and the power of hope.
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He turned cold but he took no notice; his one thought was to be quite, quite clean. His shirt gradually took on a brighter colour, and then he set about his trousers as well. They, too, became brighter. Finally he sat down with his knife and whittled away at a twig until he had a sharp point of clean wood. He pricked himself a couple of times in the process, but in the end even his toenails were clean. The sun glistened on a drop of water as it fell from his hand to his knee.
David wiped it off but it left no tide-mark: He took a deep breath and shivered. He was David. Everything else was washed away, the camp, its smell, its touch -- and now he was David, his own master, free -- free as long as he could remain so. David took a look round -- it would not do to go on sitting where he was. A little higher up the hill he caught sight of a house among the trees, and a little farther down lay the road. There would soon be people about and he must first find a safe hiding-place.
He followed the stream a little way, then turned off and went straight down towards the coast. The going was steep, but David's thick soles were used to finding places where he could get a good foothold, and his body was lithe and quick and he found no difficulty in keeping his balance.
Just before he came to the road he stopped irresolutely: But that meant he would have to lie flat all day, and when he was not sleeping it would be very irksome to lie in roughly the same position all the time. Now that he was close to the road, he could see that there were houses at regular intervals along both sides of it -- not right on it, but a little above or below with gates leading on to it. Beautiful houses, pink and pale yellow and white, with gaily painted doors and green trees and climbing plants growing on their walls.
But where there were houses there were people. A little farther on the ground fell away so steeply from the road that there were no houses for some distance His heart began to beat quickly.
The road wound among the hills and you could not see much of it at one time because it kept bending sharply round the spurs. Even if he were certain the road was clear at the moment, someone might come along just as he began to cross. Not cars, nor people walking on the hard surface, for David's hearing was good; but he would not be able to hear anyone walking on the grass verge until he was right on top of him.
Was it all to last only a single morning, all the beauty, all his desire to live? Was it all to be taken from him again by a single stranger, now or in half an hour's time?
But if he stayed where he was his danger would be just as great. Among the trees something was growing low on the ground in long rows: Something brightly coloured, not yellow nor red but both at once, caught his eye in the green grass.
It was round and rather soft. David picked it up without thinking and walked the last few yards to the road. The morning was still young and everywhere was quiet in the sunlight; there was no one to be seen. He crossed the road. Not slowly, nor hurriedly. Afterwards when his heart had stopped beating so fast, he realized that his decision had changed everything.
Ever since the night he had found the bundle lying under the tree as the man had told him it would be, his feet had carried him along, deciding the way for him. This time it was he who had made the decision. His feet had not wanted to take the risk of crossing the road, and he had mastered them and forced them to do it. The thought gave David a good warm feeling.
From now on he would think for himself and make his own decisions, and his feet and hands and body would be his servants to do his bidding. Right down by the edge of the water he was sheltered from the road, and the nearest house was some way off. David did not think anyone would be able to see him from there, but he was not sure -- and it was necessary to be sure. If he could get over to that rock, he would be in a kind of cave with two walls and a bit of a roof.
But it was too far for him to jump across. David put his bundle down and stretched his leg over the edge, feeling about with his foot for some support; but it was very steep and slippery. Only a yard separated him from the best hiding-place he had ever seen! It must be possible, there must be some way Perhaps he could find a big stone and drop it into the cleft so that he could clamber across?
But struggle as he would, he could not budge the only boulder that looked big enough.
If he had a rope Then something brown caught his eye a little farther down on his side of the cleft. A wooden packingcase -- or rather a bit of one: David suppressed his excitement. It was not big enough, he told himself.
But he ought to try, just to make sure. When his heart was beating normally again, he set off after it. The plank was long enough! He could lay it across like a bridge, and lift it away after he had crossed over it so that no one could follow him!
But was it stout enough? He found two smaller stones and laid them one under each end of the plank: It creaked a little, but it would take his weight.
It was very bare on the other side. Bare but safe, and there was room enough to lie down; and owing to the formation of the projecting rock, he would be in shadow most of the time. He could see a short stretch of the road above from where he was without being seen himself and he could see the whole coastline towards the east. David took his wet trousers off and spread them and his shirt out to dry in the sun, and then he unpacked his bundle and arranged his possessions neatly by his side -- his compass, his knife, his bottle, the bit of bread the man on board the ship had given him, and finally the round yellow thing.
He held it firmly but carefully while he scratched it with his finger-nail and bored his finger right through the skin. It was moist inside. He sniffed his finger and licked it -- it smelled good and had a bitter-sweet taste. So he took the peel right off and pulled the inside apart. It was quite easy to separate into small pieces,. He was hungry, and he had a bit of bread as well.
He wondered if that round thing were fit to eat. Taking a bite, he chewed and swallowed and waited to see what would happen. But nothing happened, nothing except that it tasted good. It did not make him ill. David ate half the pieces and chewed a bit of bread.
Then he tried the orange-coloured peel, but that tasted sharp and unpleasant. He tried to push the thought away but it kept returning: How can I stay free when I don't know what everybody else knows? I don't even know what's good to eat and what's poisonous.
The only food I know about is porridge and bread and soup. For a little while he lost courage. Why had he not talked to the others in the camp, listened to their conversation and asked about the world outside? Not about food, of course, for there was a rule in the camp that no one might talk about food: When you had nothing but bread and porridge, and not enough of that, you did not want to talk about the kind of food you used to have when you were free.
But there were other things he could have asked about. As long as Johannes had been with him, he had asked questions all the time, but he was only a little boy then and had asked about all sorts of things he had no use for now.
He looked out over the blue sea and down along the coast full of bright colour and sunshine, and clenched his teeth. He must think about Johannes and try to recall all they had talked about. He must think, too, what he had heard the other prisoners say before they had been too long in the camp to say anything more and merely let the days drag by.
Sometimes he had discovered that they were trying to escape: Their attempts at escape were never successful, but that was not their fault: David decided to follow their example.
He would make a plan of action, weighing what he knew against what he did not, and carry it out without allowing himself to be depressed by doubts or misled by hope. On his side was the fact that although he was very thin he had strong, tough muscles.
He had sharp eyes and ears, and he was used to doing with very little food. He stopped. Was there anything else to his credit? Yes, he was prepared for them: He was familiar with treachery, and he knew what death looked like.
But what advantage was his knowledge of death when he was now determined to live?
David frowned. Then he thought of another point in his favour: Learning to do that had been a great help to him in the camp.
When he could no longer pass the time thinking of mealtimes and the changing of the guard, there were various languages he could learn. David reckoned up how many he knew. First of course what they spoke -- he could read that, too.
Then he knew French And besides that, German and Italian and English. He knew some Spanish and a bit of Hebrew. Being able to talk to the sailor who had found him on board the ship had been a great advantage David felt greatly encouraged -- perhaps he would recall other things he knew as he gradually grew accustomed to thinking again. However, there were plenty of things he knew nothing of. He knew there were maps, but he had never seen one and he was quite ignorant of where the various countries of Europe lay or where their boundaries ran.
He was not at all sure which of those countries were free: Then there was the business of food -- he would have to live on what he could find, and every time he would have to risk eating something poisonous in his ignorance or passing by what was edible and going hungry. Worst of all, there were people. If he wanted to preserve his freedom, he would have to keep right away from them.
But at the same time he realized he would have to get to know something about how people lived outside a prison-camp, since an unknown danger was more dangerous than one that could be reckoned with beforehand. And so David took another decision. When it was dark he must go into the town that lay farther along the coast down by the sea. In the darkness he could always slip into a gateway or round a street corner, as he had discovered in Salonica; but he would have to go while there were people about the streets so.
In any case, it would not be as dangerous now as it might be later, for no one could yet know where to look for him. Perhaps they would not look for him at all? Here again David ran into the blank wall of his own ignorance. He did not know who he was, did not even know what country he came from. He had always lived in the camp, and even Johannes, who knew so many things, had not been able to find out anything about him for the simple reason that no one knew anything.
David wondered what he looked like. In the man's hut there had been a mirror, but it was hung too high. David had thought at one time that perhaps he was Jewish As a rule, the people they imprisoned were those who wanted to decide for themselves what they should believe and be free to write books and articles about it. But that could not apply to him.
Jews, on the other hand, were sometimes imprisoned just because they did not like Jews They said they did, but it was not true. One could not always find out why they had arrested people, and if someone had happened to find him somewhere and taken him along to the camp when he was quite small, then it might be that he was not of sufficient consequence for them to make any particular effort to recapture him.
But he could not be sure of that David realized that he must have a story. He knew from his experiences in the camp that it might be a matter of life and death to "have a good story" and stick to it however much one might be questioned. In the evening, when he had seen the kind of life people lived, he might perhaps be able to hit upon a story he could make use of if anyone questioned him.
Not that he intended that anyone should speak to him if he could avoid it, but it was best to be prepared. No one took any notice of him. While he was on the road, a man had turned round to look at him, but David had told himself, "You mustn't look as if you're afraid! And down here in the town no one at all turned to look at him. It was a small town, not like Salonica. The streets were small and narrow and very hilly. There was talk everywhere -- people walking along with. The first time David was aware of it he could hardly bring himself to move on -- almost everybody was laughing!
It was not the ugly laughter he was used to when they laughed at the prisoners David knew of course that it could not be true, but perhaps there were not so many of them here in Italy, or perhaps there just were not any in this town. And the people were beautiful! David had seen good-looking people before -- they were often good-looking when they first arrived in the camp, but only Johannes had preserved beauty in his face right up to the time he died.
And the few women David had seen looked quite different from those here But here they were beautiful, their hair long, black and waving, many of them with smooth, sun-tanned faces, and all dressed in beautiful clothes of many colours, like the sea and the trees and the golden fruit. David saw the same fruit again, a whole pile of it in a great basket outside a shop.
David translated the word into German: If only the letters were not so difficult to read! Johannes had taught him the shapes of the letters they used in other countries, but that was so long ago. If only he had a book so that he could practise reading those letters! Going down into the town had been a good move.
No one took any notice of him, and he could learn a lot by looking in the shops. He could find out what food looked like, and many other things, too, that he had never seen before and did not know the use of.
David felt quite dizzy with looking at so many things, and he stopped a moment. In front of him a man and a woman were walking along, and as they talked and laughed together they were eating something they had bought from a shop.
When they finished, the woman threw away the paper they had been eating f. His heart beating faster, David picked it up in the dark: He hurried on to the nearest light -- yes, there was printing on it, something he could practise reading! Tomorrow when it grew light He dared not stand still too long outside a brightly-lit shop: He had better go back to his rock. He looked up and discovered he was standing in a large square. At first he was frightened, for he felt much safer in the narrow streets, but then he forgot his fear as he saw in front of him on the other side of the square a very big building with a cross on top.
A church! But he did not tell him that a church could be beautiful -- its walls built of different kinds of stone that formed intricate and lovely patterns, its great doors approached by a magnificent flight of steps.
David looked at the church for a long time. He felt it had some meaning for him, but he could not tell what. His head felt very heavy as if he had been running all night long: Slowly he turned his back upon the square and went down into the narrow, brightly-lit streets again.
He stopped outside a shop where they baked round flat loaves with what he had learnt were called tomatoes on top. He was hungry. Not very hungry at the moment, but he would be by the morning. Perhaps in the morning he would find another orange. David turned round with a start. The man was standing in the open doorway offering him one of the loaves. David automatically put out his hand -- and then he quickly withdrew it. A trap.
He would take the bread and then the man would fetch them He looked up into the man's face and saw it was just like the sailor's -- the same slightly stupid expression, the same good-natured eyes.
David hesitated; perhaps he would not have him arrested. There were some good people -- Johannes had told him so -- and he had heard the same thing from other prisoners: The man laughed in a hearty friendly way, the way everybody laughed here.
Perhaps the young fellow isn't hungry! The man frowned and looked at him a little puzzled. Then he shrugged his shoulders right up to his ears and let them fall again, as if he were shaking something off, and went back to his loaves. Never in the whole of David's life had a day passed so quickly as did the next one.
Still free, he had got back to his rocks again, eaten half the loaf the man had given him and lain down to sleep. When he woke it was day, and everything was just as warm and beautiful in the bright sunshine as it had been the day before.
He had run up to the little stream for a wash before anyone was about, and even the fact that his soap had grown much thinner from overmuch use the day before did not really trouble him.
Perhaps it was because he had washed his shirt and trousers with it as well. He decided to make do with washing his hands and feet and face that day and to go sparingly with his precious soap. Then he ran down-hill again, nearly forgetting, in his eagerness to get back to his piece of paper, to look carefully up and down the road before he crossed it. That must not happen again! He made himself count to a hundred before he picked up his paper in order to remind himself how important it was never to do anything without thinking.
The scrap of paper was difficult to read. The evening before he had read several notices in the town, but this was in proper sentences with many words together.
David murmured the names of the letters to himself, first one by one and then running them together three or four at a time, and after a bit the sounds began to take shape as words he already knew.
Then he began reading to himself what was on the paper. On the whole it proved disappointing: There was something about motor-cars, and the last bit was about a king.
But at that point the paper was torn across, and David could not even find out where the king came from. From what he had heard in the camp, David had gathered that the countries that had kings were free and their people had no need to be frightened of them. But there were not many countries like that, and the knowledge was not of much use to him since he did not know where those countries were.
However, his belief that he might perhaps avoid capture seemed to have grown stronger since the day before. He had seen so much in the town that he knew deep within himself that he would have to go down there again, but he would not yet admit it to himself. He was pulled both ways: As long as it was still daylight he would think no more about paying another visit to the town.
He had plenty of other things to occupy him: And there was his piece of paper: And in between times, when his head began to buzz with the weight of too many problems that seemed to have no solution, there were all the things that he would never tire of looking at.
The blue sea stretching farther. When evening came David went down to the town again. And again the next evening, and the next He had hit upon a good story. During his second evening he had read something on a wall about a circus. He understood it was a kind of theatre that travelled about: He went down to the town again during the evening. He was gradually getting to know it inside out -the narrow crooked streets, the open space down by the sea-front, the square where the church stood.
He always went there last of all so that on the way back to the rock he would have fresh in mind the beautiful wall with its patterns of many-coloured stone. He had not summoned up enough courage to enter the church although he would have dearly loved to see what it looked like inside.
David would sometimes stand in the shadows outside a shop and listen to the conversation within. It was easy enough for they always talked very loudly with frequent bursts of laughter. In that way he learnt what many things were used for, things that were strange to him but seemed to be taken for granted by the people round him. He had not yet heard anyone talk about them: He always walked on if anyone looked at him, but he sometimes came very near to forgetting his fears, and he quite openly filled his bottle at the pump down by the seafront and accepted several loaves from the man who made them.
At first he would stand for a long time hidden in the shadows outside the shop listening to the baker's conversation with his customers -- but it was never about them, and he never asked David any questions except whether he were hungry, and then he would give him a loaf and a friendly smile. And so it was almost out of habit that David now hid in the dark outside and listened. That evening the man was talking of someone called Guglio and the good catch he had had. For a moment David's heart stood still with fear Then he realized they were talking, not of people, but of fish caught at sea.
He stood there a little longer, in his relief forgetting to listen. Then he suddenly heard the man say, "Who's that boy that comes here every evening for a loaf? Do you know? David pressed himself flat against the wall and stood there as if glued to the spot. Another man was speaking now, one who spoke differently from the rest, more after David's own fashion, "I've seen a strange boy every evening this week: I assumed he'd come over for the harvest. Signor Missiani takes on a number of casual workers about this time.
Then a woman said something. Thrse would have told me. I've seen the boy, too. It must be the same one. He doesn't look like the others and he always moves off when you look at him. He's got very strange-looking eyes Does he look as if he's up to mischief? If you smile at him, he doesn't smile back; he doesn't run off, either; he just turns and walks away.
And his eyes Perhaps we should get hold of him and ask him where he comes from. David heard no more. With no more sound than a puff of wind he was down the street and inside the first open door -- through a long dark passage and out again in another street. Never before had he found it so difficult to walk along calmly as if he felt no fear.
He increased his speed, out of the town, out to the rocks -- he must get away at once before they began looking for him. They might be sending for them already David waited a long, long time, hiding by the side of the road, before he ventured scrambling down to his hiding-place.
The last two evenings he had left his bundle there, and now he must take it with him. But first he had to make sure no one was following. When he reached the safety of the rocks, he lay down, but not to sleep, only because his legs felt as if they would not bear his weight any longer. As he lay there, he could see the lights from the town below. They looked beautiful in the dark.
But he had been right when he sensed there was danger there: The thought filled him with despair. He had begun to feel that it was his town, that the rock belonged to him. He knew every little irregularity in its surface, and every morning when he undid his bundle, he would arrange his things in the same way.
The little stream higher up across the road had been his alone, and every morning he had found an orange. All the beauty of the place had been his: Before he had come to the town he had known about nothing but death: David cried -- but not for long. He sat up and looked once more at the lights of the town. He had also learnt to think again without being afraid of doing it. And he could go on thinking; he was still free, and if he thought about everything carefully, as clearly and sensibly as he could, and remembered all he had learnt in this place, then freedom might be his for a long time yet.
He had been right in supposing that they were everywhere, even where he was now. But he had also found it true that some people were good and kind. And if they no longer dared to pretend that they had not seen him about, then it was his own fault for staying there too long. But he must never stay in one place more than one evening. He must continue to avoid people as much as possible, and he must remember not to look at them. David wished he knew what was so strange about his eyes. What did they mean when they said they were quiet?
Perhaps one day he would come across a mirror and find out what he looked like. David sighed a little. A boy could not very well disguise himself. Grown men could grow beards or shave them off; and if you had money, you could change your clothes, or wear glasses, or dye your hair.
But when you were a boy with neither beard nor money, it was no good thinking about disguising yourself. David packed everything except his compass into his bundle and stood up.
When he had crossed over the plank he drew it after him and carried it right up to the roadway so that no one would see where he had been living.
He stood still for a moment and looked down at the lights of the town. Tired out and scratched to pieces, David was glad when it began to grow light. He was no longer used to travelling at night-time and decided that as soon as he had got far enough away he would travel during the day instead. Travelling by night was too exhausting in a terrain where at every step you might run into something or trip over it -- plants, tree-roots, an unexpected slope or a hole in the ground.
He had noticed, too, that as long as people were not able to take a good look at him they paid him little enough attention -- he was just a boy passing by. There must be lots of boys in the world.
The many things he must have failed to notice in the town continued to fret him. There might have been boys there, too, but he had been so busy learning about what was in the shops, listening to what people talked about and reading notices that he had not been aware of them. He could read anything now, as long as it was in print, and that was a great advantage. He waited till it was light enough to see whether there were houses nearby and then found a good clump of bushes to sleep in.
When he woke he had a shock. It was still daylight, and as he sat up he found himself looking straight out to sea! He looked anxiously at his compass. Perhaps it had broken? But the needle moved as it should. For a moment he thought he had lost his way in the dark and had wandered round in a circle till he was back again in the neighbourhood of the town.
Then another thought occurred to him: Yes, that was it! David rose quickly to his feet and made his way down towards the shore until he could see along the coast. Then he found he had been right. The point where land and sea and sky faded into one another, blurred into the same shade of blue, now lay in the opposite direction -- on his right as he stood facing the sea, instead of on his left as it had done from his rock.
But what now? He must go northwards: For the first time since he had arrived in Italy, David could think about the man calmly and dispassionately. He had told him to go. But why should he do what the man told him? Was not he David, his own master, who decided for himself? In the camp, of course, you had to obey the man. He was the commandant, and it had never occurred to David not to obey him. He had seen only too often what happened if you failed to obey even an ordinary guard.
But now there was no longer any reason to obey him. Or was there? The bundle had lain under the tree, and when he had gone south he had come to Salonica. And there had been a ship sailing for Italy. He had not yet discovered any trap the man had set for him -- but perhaps there was one in that country called Denmark.
It was all very puzzling and David could find no answer. On this side of the peninsula, too, the road wound along on a kind of shelf above the sea. David crossed it, keeping his eyes fixed on the ground -- he might find an orange, and he had not much food left.
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