Authors: Ursula K. Le Guin
Tags: #Fantasy, #YA
POCKET BOOKS, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and
incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used
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living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 1990 by Ursula K. Le Guin
Cover art copyright © 2004 by SCI FI Channel, a division of NBC
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Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky.
—The Creation of Éa
AFTER FARMER FLINT OF THE MIDDLE Valley died, his widow stayed on at the farmhouse. Her son had gone to sea and her daughter had married a merchant of Valmouth, so she lived alone at Oak Farm. People said she had been some kind of great person in the foreign land she came from, and indeed the mage Ogion used to stop by Oak Farm to see her; but that didn’t count for much, since Ogion visited all sorts of nobodies.
She had a foreign name, but Flint had called her Goha, which is what they call a little white web-spinning spider on Gont. That name fit well enough, she being white-skinned and small and a good spinner of goats-wool and sheep-fleece. So now she was Flint’s widow, Goha, mistress of a flock of sheep and the land to pasture them, four
fields, an orchard of pears, two tenants’ cottages, the old stone farmhouse under the oaks, and the family graveyard over the hill where Flint lay, earth in his earth.
“I’ve generally lived near tombstones,” she said to her daughter.
“Oh, mother, come live in town with us!” said Apple, but the widow would not leave her solitude.
“Maybe later, when there are babies and you’ll need a hand,” she said, looking with pleasure at her grey-eyed daughter. “But not now. You don’t need me. And I like it here.”
When Apple had gone back to her young husband, the widow closed the door and stood on the stone-flagged floor of the kitchen of the farmhouse. It was dusk, but she did not light the lamp, thinking of her own husband lighting the lamp: the hands, the spark, the intent, dark face in the catching glow. The house was silent.
“I used to live in a silent house, alone,” she thought. “I will do so again.” She lighted the lamp.
In a late afternoon of the first hot weather, the widow’s old friend Lark came out from the village, hurrying along the dusty lane. “Goha,” she said, seeing her weeding in the bean patch, “Goha, it’s a bad thing. It’s a very bad thing. Can you come?”
“Yes,” the widow said. “What would the bad thing be?”
Lark caught her breath. She was a heavy, plain, middle-aged woman, whose name did not fit her
body any more. But once she had been a slight and pretty girl, and she had befriended Goha, paying no attention to the villagers who gossiped about that white-faced Kargish witch Flint had brought home; and friends they had been ever since.
“A burned child,” she said.
Goha went to shut the farmhouse door, and they set off along the lane, Lark talking as they went. She was short of breath and sweating. Tiny seeds of the heavy grasses that lined the lane stuck to her cheeks and forehead, and she brushed at them as she talked. “They’ve been camped in the river meadows all the month. A man, passed himself off as a tinker, but he’s a thief, and a woman with him. And another man, younger, hanging around with them most of the time. Not working, any of ’em. Filching and begging and living off the woman. Boys from downriver were bringing them farmstuff to get at her. You know how it is now, that kind of thing. And gangs on the roads and coming by farms. If I were you, I’d lock my door, these days. So this one, this younger fellow, comes into the village, and I was out in front of our house, and he says, ‘The child’s not well.’ I’d barely seen a child with them, a little ferret of a thing, slipped out of sight so quick I wasn’t sure it was there at all. So I said, ‘Not well? A fever?’ And the fellow says, ‘She hurt herself, lighting the fire,’ and then before I’d
got myself ready to go with him he’d made off. Gone. And when I went out there by the river, the other pair was gone too. Cleared out. Nobody. All their traps and trash gone too. There was just their campfire, still smoldering, and just by it—partly in it—on the ground—”
Lark stopped talking for several steps. She looked straight ahead, not at Goha.
“They hadn’t even put a blanket over her,” she said.
She strode on.
“She’d been pushed into the fire while it was burning,” she said. She swallowed, and brushed at the sticking seeds on her hot face. “I’d say maybe she fell, but if she’d been awake she’d have tried to save herself. They beat her and thought they’d killed her, I guess, and wanted to hide what they’d done to her, so they—”
She stopped again, went on again.
“Maybe it wasn’t him. Maybe he pulled her out. He came to get help for her, after all. It must have been the father. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Who’s to know? Who’s to care? Who’s to care for the child? Why do we do what we do?”
Goha asked in a low voice, “Will she live?”
“She might,” Lark said. “She might well live.”
After a while, as they neared the village, she said, “I don’t know why I had to come to you. Ivy’s there. There’s nothing to be done.”
“I could go to Valmouth, for Beech.”
“Nothing he could do. It’s beyond... beyond
help. I got her warm. Ivy’s given her a potion and a sleeping charm. I carried her home. She must be six or seven but she didn’t weigh what a two-year-old would. She never really waked. But she makes a sort of gasping.... I know there isn’t anything you can do. But I wanted you.”