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Authors: Ursula K. le Guin

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BOOK: Gifts
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Alloc and I were to ride with my father one morning up to the high pastures to check on the spring calving there. As usual my father rode Greylag, but this time he told Alloc to take Roanie while I rode the colt. That was a dubious privilege, this morning. Branty was in a vile temper. He tossed his head, he held his breath, he kicked out and tried to bite, he bucked when I mounted, he sidled and backed and embarrassed me in every way. Just as I thought I had him under control, Hamneda burst out from somewhere and came leaping straight at the colt, yapping, a broken leash nailing all about him. I yelled at the dog as Branty reared right up, unseating me. I managed not to fall, and to regain my seat, and to rein the scared colt in, all in a wild flurry. When Branty finally stood still, I looked for the dog and saw a heap of black and tan on the courtyard pavement.

“What happened?” I said.

My father, sitting his horse, looked at me. “Do you not know?”

I stared at Hamneda. I thought Branty must have trampled him. But there was no blood. He lay boneless, shapeless. One long black-and-tan leg lay like limp rope. I swung off the horse, but I could not go nearer that thing lying on the pavement.

I stared up at my father and cried out, “Did you have to kill him?”

“Was it I?” Canoc said, in a voice that turned me cold.

“Ah, Orrec, it was you,” said Alloc, bringing Roanie over closer—“sure enough, you flung out your hand, you were saving the horse from the fool of a dog!”

“I did not!” I said. “I did—I did not kill him!”

“Do you know whether you did or not?” Canoc said, almost jeering, it seemed.

“It was just as when you destroyed the adder, sure enough,” Alloc said. “A quick eye!” But his voice was a little uneasy or unhappy. People had come into the courtyard from the house and outside, hearing the commotion, and stood staring. The horses fretted, wanting to stand away from the dead dog. Branty, whom I held close at the bridle, was shivering and sweating, and so was I. All at once I turned away and vomited, but I did not let go the reins. When I had wiped my mouth and got my breath, I led Branty to the mounting stone and got back up in the saddle. I could barely speak, but I said, “Are we going?”

And we rode on up to the high pastures, in silence all the way.

That evening I asked where they had buried the dog. I went to the place, out past the midden, and stood there. I could not grieve much for poor Hamneda, but there was a terrible grief in me. When I started back to the house in the late dusk, my father was on the path.

“I’m sorry about your dog, Orrec,” he said in his grave, quiet voice.

I nodded.

“Tell me this: did you will to destroy him?”

“No,” I said, but I did not speak with entire certainty, because nothing was clear or certain to me any more. I had hated the dog for his idiocy, for scaring the colt, but I had not wanted to kill him for it, had I?

“Yet you did.”

“Without meaning to?”

“You didn’t know you were using your gift?”

“No!”

He had turned to walk with me, and we went on towards the house in silence. The spring twilight was sweet and cold. The evening star hung near the young moon in the west.

“Am I like Caddard?” I asked in a whisper.

He took a long time to answer. “You must try to learn the use of the gift, to control it,” he said.

“But I can’t. Nothing happens when I try to use it, Father! I’ve tried and tried—It’s only when I don’t try—when it’s something like the adder—or today—and it doesn’t seem like I do anything—it just happens—”

The words all came at once, the stones of my tower-keep clattering down around me.

Canoc did not reply except with a little sound of compunction. He put his hand lightly on my shoulder as we walked. As we came to the gate, he said, “There is what they call the wild gift.”

“Wild?”

“A gift not controlled by the will.”

“Is it dangerous?”

He nodded.

“What do—what do you do about it?”

“Have patience,” he said, and again his hand was on my shoulder for a moment. “Take courage, Orrec. We’ll find out what we must do.”

It was a relief to know my father was not angry with me, and to be free of that furious resistance to him in myself; but what he had said was frightening enough to leave me little comfort that night. When in the morning he summoned me to go with him, I came readily. If there was something I could do, I would do it.

He was silent and stern that morning. I thought it was all to do with me, of course, but he said as we walked towards the Ashbrook vale: “Dorec came this morning. He says two of the white heifers are missing.”

The heifers were of the old Rodd stock, three beautiful creatures, for which Canoc had traded a big piece of good woodland on our border with Roddmant. He was hoping to build up a herd of those cattle again at Caspromant. The three had been pastured this last month in a bit of fat grassland at the south edge of the domain, near the sheep grazings. A serf woman and her son whose cottage was near that pasture kept an eye on them along with the five or six milch cows she kept there.

“Did they find a break in the fences?” I asked.

He shook his head.

The heifers were the most valuable thing we had, aside from Greylag, Roanie, and Branty, and the land itself. The loss of two of them would be a hard blow to Canoc’s hopes.

“Are we going to go look for them?”

He nodded. “Today.”

“They might have got up onto the Sheer—”

“Not by themselves,” he said.

“Do you think…” I did not go on. If the heifers had been stolen, there were all too many likely thieves. The likeliest, in that part of the domain, would be Drum or some of his people. But speculation about cattle thieving was a risky thing. Murderous feuds had been started over a careless word, not even an accusation. Though my father and I were alone, the habit of discretion in these matters was strong. We said nothing more.

We came to the same spot we had stopped at days ago, when I first defied him. He said, “Will you—” and stopped, completing his question with an almost pleading look at me. I nodded.

I looked about. The hillside rose gently up, grassy and stony, hiding the higher slopes above it. A little ash tree had got a foothold near the path and was struggling to grow there by itself, spindly and dwarfed, but putting out its leaf buds bravely. I looked away from it. There was an ant hill by the path ahead of us. It was early morning yet, and the big, reddish-black ants were still boiling in and out of the opening at the top, forming lines, hurrying along on their business. It was a large hill, a mound of bare clay standing a foot tall. I had seen the ruins of such insect cities and could imagine the tunnels underground, the complex galleries and passages, the dark architecture. In that instant, not giving myself time to think, I stretched out my left hand and stared at the ant hill and the breath burst from my lips in a sharp sound as I struck with all my will to unmake, undo, destroy it.

I saw the green grass in the sunlight, the dwarf ash tree, the bare brown ant hill, the reddish-black ants hurrying in and out of its narrow mouth, going and coming in straggling columns through the grass and across the path.

My father was standing behind me. I did not turn around. I heard his silence. I could not bear it.

In a passion of frustration, I shut my eyes tight, wishing I need never see this place again, the ants, the grass, the path, the sunlight—

I opened my eyes and saw the grass curl and turn black, the ants stop and shrivel up into nothing, their hill collapsing into dusty caverns. The ground seemed to writhe and boil before me up the hillside with a cracking, splitting rattle, and something that stood before me shuddered and twisted and turned black. My left hand was still out stiff, pointing before me. I clenched it, brought both hands up over my face. “Stop it! Stop it!” I shouted.

My fathers hands were on my shoulders. He held me against him. “There,” he said, “there. It’s done, Orrec. It’s done.” I could feel that he was shaking, as I was, and his breath came short.

When I took my hands away from my eyes, I turned my head away at once, terrified by what I saw. Half the hillside before us was as if a whirlwind of fire had swept across it—ruined, withered—a litter of split pebbles on dead ground. The ash tree was a split black stump.

I turned around and hid my face against my fathers chest. “I thought it was you, I thought it was you standing there!”

“What is it,
son?
” He was very gentle, keeping his hands on me as he would with a scared foal, talking quietly.

“I would have killed you!—But I didn’t, I didn’t mean to! I didn’t
do
it! I did it but I didn’t will it! What can I do!”

“Listen, listen, Orrec. Don’t be afraid. I won’t ask you again—”

“But it’s no use! I can’t control it! I can’t do it when I want to do it and then when I don’t want to do it I do! I don’t dare look at you! I don’t dare look at anything! What if I—what if I—” But I couldn’t go on. I sank right down on the ground paralysed by terror and despair.

Canoc sat down on the dirt of the path beside me and let me recover myself by myself.

I sat up at last. I said, “I am like Caddard.”

It was a statement and a question.

“Maybe—” my father said, “maybe like Caddard was as a child. Not as he was when he killed his wife. He was mad then. But as a young child, it was his gift that was wild. It wasn’t under his control.”

I said, “They blindfolded him till he learned how to control it. You could blindfold me.”

After I said it, it seemed a crazy thing, and I wanted it unsaid. But I raised my head and looked at the hillside in front of me, a broad swathe of dead grass and withered shrubs, dust and shattered stones, a formless ruin. Any living thing that had been there was dead. All the delicate, coherent, complex shapes of the things that had been there were destroyed. The ash tree was a hideous, branchless stump. I had done that and not known I was doing it. I had not willed to do it, yet I had done it. I had been angry…

I shut my eyes once more. “It would be best,” I said.

Perhaps there was some hope in me that my father would have a different, a better plan. But, after a long time, and in a low voice as if ashamed that it was all he could say, he said, “Maybe for a while.”


9

N
either of us was ready to do what we had spoken of doing or even to think about it yet. There was the matter of the heifers, strayed or stolen. Of course I wanted to ride with him to look for them, and he wanted me with him. So we went back to the Stone House and mounted, along with Alloc and a couple of other young men, and were off without another word about what had happened beside the Ashbrook.

But all that long day from time to time I would look at the green vales, the willows along the streams, the heather in blossom and the early yellow broom flowers, and up to the blue and brown of the great hills, scanning for the heifers, but at the same time afraid of looking, afraid of staring too hard, of seeing the grass blacken and the trees wither in an invisible flame. Then I would look away, look down, clench my left hand to my side, close my eyes a moment, try to think of nothing, see nothing.

It was a weary day, fruitless. The old woman who had been charged with guarding the heifers was so terrified of Canoc’s anger that she couldn’t say anything that made sense. Her son, who should have been watching over them in the pasture near Drummant land, had been up on the mountain hunting hares. We found no break in the fences where the cattle might have got through, but they were old stone fences with palings along the top which could have been easily pulled out and replaced by thieves covering their tracks. Or the heifers, still young and adventurous, might have simply wandered off up one of the glens and be peacefully grazing away somewhere on the vast, folded slopes of the East Sheer. But in that ease, it was odd that one of them had stayed behind. Cattle follow one another. The one pretty young cow left, shut up now too late, in the barnyard, mooed mournfully from time to time, calling her friends.

Alloc and his cousin Dorec and the old woman’s son were left to search the high slopes, while my father and I rode home a roundabout way that took us clear up along our border with Drummant, keeping an eye out for white cattle all the way. Now, as I rode, whenever we were on high ground I stretched my gaze westward looking for the heifers, and thought what it would be like not to be able to do that: not to be able to look: to see only blackness no matter how I looked. What good would I be then? Instead of helping my father, I would be a burden to him. That thought was hard. I began thinking of things that I would not be able to do, and from that began thinking of things that I would not be able to see thinking of them one by one: this hill, that tree The round grey crest of Mount Airn The cloud over it. The twilight gathering round the Stone House as we rode down the glen towards it. Dim yellow light in a window. Roanie’s ears in front of me, turning and flicking. Branty’s dark, bright eye under his red forelock. My mothers face. The little opal she wore on a silver chain. I saw and thought of each separate thing each time with a sharp piercing pain because all those little pangs though they were endless were still easier to bear than the single immense pain of realising that I must not see anything, that I must see nothing, that I must be blind.

We were both very tired, and I thought perhaps we’d go on saying nothing at least for one more night, that Canoc would put it off till morning (and what would morning mean, when I could not see the light above the hills?). But after our supper, eaten in weary silence, he said to my mother that we must talk, and we went up to her tower room, where a fire was laid. It had been a bright day but a cool one, the windy end of April, and the night was cold. The warmth of the fire was very pleasant on my legs and face. I will feel that when I can’t see it, I thought.

My father and mother were speaking of the lost heifers. I gazed into the fire as it caught and flared, and the weary peacefulness that had taken hold of me for a minute slipped away. Little by little my heart filled up with an immense anger at the injustice of what had befallen me. I would not bear it, I would not endure it. I would not blind myself because my father feared me! The fire leapt up along a dry branch, crackling and sparking, and I caught my breath, turning towards them, towards him.

BOOK: Gifts
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