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Authors: Ursula K. le Guin

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BOOK: Gifts
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“Well, that’s ugly,” he said, sounding impressed, for the moment.

“Some of the Cordemant men have the same gift,” Gry said.

“Your father, Gry, the Brantor of Roddmant—has he a gift, or is it all your mother’s?”

“The Rodds have the gilt of the knife,” she said.

“And that would be…”

“To send a spellknife into a mans heart or cut his throat with it or kill him or maim him with it how they please, if he’s within sight.”

“By all the names of all the sons of Chorm, that’s a nice trick! A pretty gift! I’m glad you take after your mother.”

“So am I,” Gry said.

He kept coaxing and I couldn’t resist the sense of power it gave me to tell him of the powers of my people. So I told him of the Olm lineage, who can set a fire burning at any place they can see and point to; and the Callems, who can move heavy things by word and gesture, even buildings, even hills; and the Morga lineage, who have the innersight, so that they see what you’re thinking—though Gry said what they saw was any illness or weakness that might be in you. We agreed that in either case the Morgas could be uncomfortable neighbors, though not dangerous ones, which is why they keep out of the Way, on poor domains far over in the northern glens, and no one knows much about them except that they breed good horses.

Then I told him what I had heard all my life about the lineages of the great domains, Helvarmant, Tibromant, Borremant, the warlords of the Carrantages, up on the mountain to the northeast. The gift of the Helvars was called cleansing, and it was akin to the gift of my lineage, so I said no more about it. The gifts of the Tibros and the Borres were called the rein and the broom. A man of Tibromant could take your will from you and make you do his will; that was the rein. Or a woman of Borremant could take your mind from you and leave you a blank idiot, brainless and speechless; that was the broom. And it was done, as with all such powers, with a glance, a gesture, a word.

But those powers were hearsay to us as much as to Emmon. There were none of those great lineages here in the Uplands, and brantors of the Carrantages did not mix with us people of the low domains, though they raided down the mountain now and then for serfs.

“And you fight back, with your knives and fires and all,” Emmon said. “I can see why you live so scattered out!…And the folk on west of here that you’ve spoken of, the big domain, Drummant, is it? What’s their brantors way of making you unhappy? I like to know these things before I meet a fellow.”

I did not speak. “The gift of Brantor Ogge is the slow wasting,” Gry said.

Emmon laughed. He could not know not to laugh at that.

“Worst yet!” he said. “Well, I take it back about those people with the innersight, is it, who can tell you what ails you. After all that could be a useful gift.”

“Not against a raid,” I said.

“Are you always fighting each other, then, your domains?”

“Of course.”

“What for?”

“If you don’t fight, you’re taken over, your lineage is broken.” I treated his ignorance rather loftily. “That’s what the gifts are for, the powers—so you can protect your domain and keep your lineage pure. If we couldn’t protect ourselves we’d lose the gift. We’d be overrun by other lineages, and by common people, or even by
callucs—
” I stopped short. The word on my lips stopped me, the contemptuous word for Lowlanders, people of no gift, a word I had never said aloud in my life.

My mother had been a calluc. They had called her that at Drummant.

I could hear Emmon poking with a stick in the ashes, and after a while he said, “So these powers, these gifts, run in the family line, from father to son, like a snub nose might do?”

“And from mother to daughter,” said Gry, as I said nothing.

“So you’ve all got to marry in the family to keep the gift in the family. I can see that. Do the gifts die out if you can’t find a cousin to marry?”

“It’s not a problem in the Carrantages,” I said. “The land’s richer up there, the domains are bigger, with more people on them. A brantor there may have a dozen families of his lineage on his domain. Down here, the lineages are small. Gifts get weakened if there are too many marriages out of the lineage. But the strong gift runs true. Mother to daughter, father to son.”

“And so your trick with the animals came from your mother, the lady-brantor”—he gave the word a feminine form, which sounded ridiculous—“And Orrec’s gift is from Brantor Canoc, and I’ll ask no more about that. But you will tell me, now that you know I ask in friendship, were you born blind, Orrec? Or those witches you told of, from Cordemant, did they do this to you, in spite, or a feud, or a raid?”

I did not know how to put his question aside, and had no half-answer for it.

“No,” I said. “My father sealed my eyes.”

“Your father! Your father blinded you?”

I nodded.


2

T
o see that your life is a story while you’re in the middle of living it may be a help to living it well. It’s unwise, though, to think you know how it’s going to go, or how it’s going to end. That’s to be known only when it’s over.

And even when it’s over, even when it’s somebody else’s life, somebody who lived a hundred years ago, whose story I’ve heard told time and again, while I’m hearing it I hope and fear as if I didn’t know how it would end; and so I live the story and it lives in me. That’s as good a way as I know to outwit death. Stories are what death thinks he puts an end to. He can’t understand that they end in him, but they don’t end with him.

Other people’s stories may become part of your own, the foundation of it, the ground it goes on. So it was with my father’s story of the Blind Brantor; and his story of the raid on Dunet; and my mothers stories of the Lowlands and of the time when Cumbelo was King.

When I think of my childhood, I enter into the hall of the Stone House, I am in the hearth seat, in the muddy courtyard or the clean stables of Caspromant; I am in the kitchen garden with my mother picking beans, or with her by the hearth in the round tower room; I am out on the open hills with Gry; I am in the world of the never-ending stories.

A great, thick staff of yew wood, crudely cut but polished black at the grip by long use, hung beside the door of the Stone House, in the dark entryway: Blind Caddard’s staff. It was not to be touched. It was much taller than I was when I first knew that. I used to go and touch it secretly for the thrill of it, because it was forbidden, because it was a mystery.

I thought Brantor Caddard had been my fathers father, for that was as far back in history as my understanding went. I knew my grandfathers name had been Orrec. I was named for him. So, in my mind, my father had two fathers. I had no difficulty with that, but found it interesting.

I was in the stables with my father, looking after the horses. He did not fully trust any of his people with his horses, and had begun training me to help him with them when I was three. I was up on a step stool currying the winter hair out of the roan mare’s coat. I asked my father, who was working on the big grey stallion in the next stall, “Why did you only name me for one of your fathers?”

“I had only one to name you for,” my father said. “Like most respectable folk.” He did not often laugh, but I could see his dry smile.

“Then who was Brantor Caddard?”—but then I had figured it out before he could answer—“He was your father’s father!”

“My father’s father’s father’s father,” Canoc said, through the cloud of winter fur and dust and dried mud he was bringing up out of Greylag’s coat. I kept tugging and whacking and combing away at the mares flank, and was rewarded with rubbish in my eyes and nose and mouth, and a patch of bright white-and-red spring coat the size of my hand on Roanie’s flank, and a rumble of contentment from her. She was like a cat; if you petted her she leaned on you. I pushed her off as hard as I could and worked on, trying to enlarge the bright patch. There were too many fathers for me to keep straight.

The one I had came around to the front of the mare’s stall, wiping his face, and stood there watching me. I worked away, showing off, pushing the currycomb now in strokes too long to do much good. But my father didn’t say anything about it. He said, “Caddard had the greatest gift of our lineage, or any other of the western hills. The greatest that was ever given us. What is the gift of our lineage, Orrec?”

I stopped work, stepped down from the stool, carefully, because it was a long step down for me, and stood facing my father. When he said my name, I stood up, stood still, and faced him: so I had done as far back as I could remember.

“Our gift is the undoing,” I said.

He nodded. He was always gentle with me. I had no fear of harm from him. Obeying him was a difficult, intense pleasure. His satisfaction was my reward.

“What does that mean?”

I said as he had taught me to say: “It means the power to undo, unmake, destroy.”

“Have you seen me use that power?”

“I saw you make a bowl go all to pieces.”

“Have you seen me use that power on a living thing?”

“I saw you make a willow wand go all soft and black.”

I hoped he would stop, but that was no longer where these questions stopped.

“Have you seen me use that power on a living animal?”

“I saw you make…a…make a rat die.”

“How did it die?” His voice was quiet and relentless.

It was in the winter. In the courtyard. A trapped rat. A young rat. It had got into a rain barrel and been unable to clamber out. Darre the sweeper saw it first. My father said, “Come here, Orrec,” and I came, and he said, “Be still and see this,” and I stood still and watched. I craned my neck so that I could see the rat swimming in the water that half-filled the barrel. My father stood above the barrel, gazing down steadily into it. He moved his hand, his left hand, and said something or breathed sharply out. The rat squirmed once, shuddered, and floated on the water. My father reached his right hand in and brought it out. It lay utterly limp in his hand, shapeless, like a wet rag, not like a rat. But I saw the tail and toes with their tiny claws. “Touch it, Orrec,” he said. I touched it. It was soft, without bones, like a little half-filled sack of meal inside its thin wet skin. “It is unmade,” my father said, his eyes on mine, and I was afraid of his eyes then.

“You unmade it,” I said now, in the stable, with a dry mouth, afraid of my father’s eyes.

He nodded.

“I have that power,” he said, “as you will. And as it grows in you, I’ll teach you the way to use it. What is the way to use your gift?”

“With eye and hand and breath and will,” I said, as he had taught me.

He nodded, satisfied. I relaxed a little; but he did not. The test was not over.

“Look at that knot of hair, Orrec,” he said. A little clotted tangle of muddy horsehair lay on the stable floor near my feet, among the slight littering of straw. It had been caught in the roan mare’s mane, and I had worked it free and let it drop. At first I thought my father was going to scold me for dirtying the stable floor.

“Look at it. At it only. Don’t look away from it. Keep your eyes on it.”

I obeyed.

“Move your hand—so.” Coming behind me, my father moved my left arm and hand gently, carefully, till the joined fingers pointed at the clot of mud and hair. “Hold it so. Now, say what I say after me. With your breath but not your voice. Say this.” He whispered something that had no meaning to me, and I whispered it after him, holding my hand pointing as he had placed it, staring and staring at the clot of hair.

For a moment nothing moved, everything held still. Then Roanie sighed and shifted her feet, and I heard the wind gusting outside the stable door, and the tangle of muddy hair on the floor moved a little.

“It moved!” I cried.

“The wind moved it,” my father said. His voice was mild, with a smile in it. He stood differently, stretched his shoulders. “Wait a while. You’re not six yet.”

“You do it, Father,” I said, staring at the clot of horsehair, excited and angry, vindictive. “You unmake it!”

I scarcely saw him move or heard his breath. The tangled thing on the floor uncurled in a puff of dust, and nothing lay there but a few long, reddish-cream hairs.

“The power will come to you,” Canoc said. “The gift is strong in our lineage. But in Caddard it was strongest. Sit down here. You’re old enough to know his story.”

I sat perched on the step stool. My father stood in the doorway of the stall, a thin, straight, dark man, bare-legged in his heavy black Uplander kilt and coat, his eyes dark and bright through the mask of stable dirt on his face. His hands were filthy too, but they were strong, fine hands, steady, without restlessness. His voice was quiet. His will was strong.

He told me the story of Blind Caddard.

“Caddard showed his gift earlier than any son of our lineage, or any but the greatest families of the Carrantages. At three, he’d gaze at his toys and they’d fall to pieces, and he could untie a knot with a look. At four, he used his power against a dog that leapt on him and frightened him, and destroyed it. As I destroyed that rat.”

He paused for my nod of acknowledgment.

“The servants were afraid of him, and his mother said, ‘While his will is a child’s will, he is a danger to us all, even to me.’ She was a woman of our lineage; she and her husband Orrec were cousins. He heeded her warning. They tied a bandage around the child’s eyes for three years, so that he couldn’t use the power of the eye. All that time they taught and trained him. As I teach you and train you. He learned well. His reward for perfect obedience was to see again. And he was careful, using his great gift only in practice, on things of no use or value.

“Only twice in his youth did he show his power. Once, when the Brantor of Drummant had been raiding cattle from one domain and another, they invited him to Caspromant and let him see Caddard, who was a boy of twelve then, unmake a flight of wild geese. With one glance and gesture he dropped them from the sky. He did this smilingly, as if to entertain their visitor. ‘A keen eye,’ Drum said. And he stole none of our cattle.

BOOK: Gifts
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