Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Tales in Honour of Ursula K. Le Guin: The Wanderers

Begin again then, where the trail runs cold...

This is the story of the people who had forgotten their own story.

They lived, a long time from now, by the shore of a lake, in the midst of a great and ancient forest. When the sun shone it turned the waters of the lake to gold, and when the moon rose it changed them to silver, and all through the night and the day the great forest breathed and its creatures conversed with one another about what the wind and the sun and the rain were doing. The human people had enough food to eat, and enough to do getting that food, and enough to converse about, what with the doing and the eating and the wind and sun and rain, so that there was hardly time between one day and the next to snatch a minute's silence among the trees and think, or pray, or lie still and watch the leaves turn in air.

There were other places, beyond the human village on the lakeshore, where silence was. In the Stone Lake to the south, deep beyond thought, the rains pooled and fish swam under the sheer walls of rock. But this was also a favourite place to play and swim during the summer months, and the jumping cliffs more often rang with the sounds of shouts and splashes than with silence. To the west was a ruined place where no one but ghosts lived, and people went to get steel and other useful things from among the heaps of rock and pebbled glass. But here there were wolves and coywolves, and those who made the journey went warily, with the sounds of hammers and chains ringing in their ears as they harvested the good materials.

The best place to find silence was on the eastern shore of the lake, where the rays of the setting sun from across the water stole through the pine branches and turned the air to mystery and breathlessness. Young people would steal across the lake in canoes and lie down on soft beds of needles, watching the blue sky through the branches darkening into night, drinking in silence. In winter too, it was quiet there, for no fires were lit and no one chopped wood or broke the ice to fish. And when the young people returned home from the Wood-Beyond-the-Water, the wind seemed different to their ears, whispering through the branches: 'elsewhere, elsewhere,' it seemed to say. Old people would see the young ones sigh, and smile, knowing in their own hearts what it was like to be young.

This was true for years beyond memory, but there lived a young man who wanted more. He sought the Wood-Beyond more often than the others, and each time he returned from the silence of the pine groves his heart was more troubled than before. At last the words 'elsewhere, elsewhere' echoed in his ears unceasingly, and he came before the elders and said,

“I have it in my mind to cross the water and settle forever in the Wood-Beyond. There I have found silence and deep peace, and having tasted that I know that this village is no home of mine. I will take with me as many as will come.”

“Do not go,” said the elders, “for when you leave, silence will come to where we are and remain.”

But the young man was a fiery heart, and he spoke to his friends about his wish. Many decided to go with him, and they packed up their tents and trowels and dishes and deerskins and adzes and axes and withies and washing machines and seeds and smithies and all of their family remembrances, and went in a great fleet of canoes to the eastern shore of the lake. They landed there and built a new village, and dwelt among the tall groves they had grown to love.

The summer passed, and winter came, and the young people learned that the soil in the Wood-Beyond was not strong enough to return them a sufficient harvest. Before winter was at its deepest they left their village and moved out onto the land in smaller groups to hunt and to trap, scattering north, south, and east into the deep silence of the forest.

When they gathered under the pines again in spring, leaner than when they had landed, each talked about the place they had wintered in, comparing this land to that land and conversing about which had the best game, the best soil, the best access to water. All agreed that the Wood-Beyond could not support them, but no one could agree on where was best to move. An argument arose, and as the young man who had led them listened to the noise of voices rise through the branches he felt the peace of the Wood-Beyond seep away forever into the earth. It could never be called Home. The wind off the lake picked up and made the pine trees sway, and it seemed to him that they murmured, 'elsewhere, elsewhere'. Finally he spoke, urging his companions to move further east, and this they did.

They found a new place and built another village in a valley with rich earth and a broad stream with many fish. They planted and hunted and worked at the crafts that pleased them, but as the corn came up they saw that it was diseased, and that they had built on poisoned soil. Again they broke the village before midwinter and scattered north, south, and east, and again they gathered in spring to debate where next to move. This time the young man who led them thought he heard the whole valley stir with the spring wind and cry 'elsewhere! elsewhere!' Again they picked up and moved eastward in search of a place to call Home.

This continued for many years, for each place they chose proved wanting in some way or another: one was sheltered from the wind but flooded too easily, one had rich soil but no game, one was abundant in game but the springs carried the taste of bad metals. Each spring they picked up again and moved, sometimes northward, sometimes southward, but always further to the east. Children were born among them who had no memory of the birthplace of their parents. Some people died from the hardship of their journeys, and things were lost along the way, things that held memories that could not be replaced. Nowhere could they find the peace they sought.

When the young man had become a man of middle age, with forest-born children of his own, they came at last to the shore of the great sea. As he looked out over the endless waters he heard the restlessness in his own heart echoed and re-echoed: “ELSEWHERE, ELSEWHERE,” shouted the waves, and he was moved almost to tears.

“Here is the answer to our long wanderings,” he said, “for when first we yearned to cross the water, our yearning was only an echo of this greater yearning. Let us build greater canoes than before, and paddle across the Great Water to where we shall find our Home.”

Many were troubled and would not consent at first, but his fiery heart was strong, and eventually the people took their axes and adzes and made canoes from the forest that were deep and strong. Then they put their children and their belongings into the canoes and began the journey over wave and along the pathways of the wind. After long and harrowing labours, they reached at last a small village on a distant shore. As the dawn broke over the hills before them, they landed their canoes and approached the center of the village, where a woman walked alone in the shadow of the clock tower, cradling her infant child in her arms.

The leader of the wanderers approached her. “Is this Home?” he asked, his voice trembling.

“No,” she said. “I have lived here all my days, and I have never heard it called Home. What you seek is elswhere, elsewhere.”

At this the man’s long-suffering heart broke, and he wept there before the woman and all his people. But she was kind, and she asked him to tell why they had come. He told her of his people’s long wanderings, how they had lost so much, and how even their memories had perished as the young children grew up without a home. “That is why we sought, here beyond the sea, our last hope of finding peace,” he said, with tears in his eyes.

The woman nodded, and looked at all of them standing there, and then she said, “There is a place where silence is, and deep peace, a place which is called Home. But why did you ever leave it?”

And they knew that she was right, and as one they looked back at their own shadows stretching westward across the water.

“But please,” said the woman, as they made ready to go, “take me with you. I am an outcast among my own people, and there is no home here for my son.”

And that is how Hobart the Hunter and Marsiah, Mother of Tales, joined the Wanderers and journeyed Home, there to begin again in a new land.

No comments:

Post a Comment