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The Telling

Chapter One

When Sutty went back to Earth in the daytime, it was always to the village. At night, it was the Pale.

Yellow of brass, yellow of turmeric paste and of rice cooked with saffron, orange of marigolds, dull orange haze of sunset dust above the fields, henna red, passionflower red, dried-blood red, mud red: all the colors of sunlight in the day. A whiff of asafetida. The brook-babble of Aunty gossiping with Moti's mother on the verandah. Uncle Hurree's dark hand lying still on a white page. Ganesh's little piggy kindly eye. A match struck and the rich grey curl of incense smoke: pungent, vivid, gone. Scents, glimpses, echoes that drifted or glimmered through her mind when she was walking the streets, or eating, or taking a break from the sensory assault of the neareals she had to partiss in, in the daytime, under the other sun.

But night is the same on any world. Light's absence is only that. And in the darkness, it was the Pale she was in. Not in dream, never in dream. Awake, before she slept, or when she woke from dream, disturbed and tense, and could not get back to sleep. A scene would begin to happen, not in sweet, bright bits but in full recall of a place and a length of time; and once the memory began, she could not stop it. She had to go through it until it let her go. Maybe it was a kind of punishment, like the lovers' punishment in Dante's Hell, to remember being happy. But those lovers were lucky, they remembered it together.

The rain. The first winter in Vancouver rain. The sky like a roof of lead weighing down on the tops of buildings, flattening the huge black mountains up behind the city. Southward the rain-rough grey water of the Sound, under which lay Old Vancouver, drowned by the sea rise long ago. Black sleet on shining asphalt streets. Wind, the wind that made her whimper like a dog and cringe, shivering with a scared exhilaration, it was so fierce and crazy, that cold wind out of the Arctic, ice breath of the snow bear. It went right through her flimsy coat, but her boots were warm, huge ugly black plastic boots splashing in the gutters, and she'd soon be home. It made you feel safe, that awful cold. People hurried past not bothering each other, all their hates and passions frozen. She liked the North, the cold, the rain, the beautiful, dismal city.

Aunty looked so little, here, little and ephemeral, like a small butterfly. A red-and-orange cotton saree, thin brass bangles on insect wrists. Though there were plenty of Indians and Indo-Canadians here, plenty of neighbors, Aunty looked small even among them, displaced, misplaced. Her smile seemed foreign and apologetic. She had to wear shoes and stockings all the time. Only when she got ready for bed did her feet reappear, the small brown feet of great character which had always, in the village, been a visible part of her as much as her hands, her eyes. Here her feet were put away in leather cases, amputated by the cold. So she didn't walk much, didn't run about the house, bustle about the kitchen. She sat by the heater in the front room, wrapped up in a pale ragged knitted woollen blanket, a butterfly going back into its cocoon. Going away, farther away all the time, but not by walking.

Sutty found it easier now to know Mother and Father, whom she had scarcely known for the last fifteen years, than to know Aunty, whose lap and arms had been her haven. It was delightful to discover her parents, her mother's good-natured wit and intellect, her father's shy, unhandy efforts at showing affection. To converse with them as an adult while knowing herself unreasonably beloved as a child-it was easy, it was delightful. They talked about everything, they learned one another. While Aunty shrank, fluttered away very softly, deviously, seeming not to be going anywhere, back to the village, to Uncle Hurree's grave.

Spring came, fear came. Sunlight came back north here long and pale like an adolescent, a silvery shadowy radiance. Small pink plum trees blossomed all down the side streets of the neighborhood. The Fathers declared that the Treaty of Beijing contravened the Doctrine of Unique Destiny and must be abrogated. The Pales were to be opened, said the Fathers, their populations allowed to receive the Holy Light, their schools cleansed of unbelief, purified of alien error and deviance. Those who clung to sin would be re-educated.

Mother was down at the Link offices every day, coming home late and grim. This is their final push, she said; if they do this, we have nowhere to go but underground.

In late March, a squadron of planes from the Host of God flew from Colorado to the District of Washington and bombed the Library there, plane after plane, four hours of bombing that turned centuries of history and millions of books into dirt. Washington was not a Pale, but the beautiful old building, though often closed and kept locked, under guard, had never been attacked; it had endured through all the times of trouble and war, breakdown and revolution, until this one. The Time of Cleansing. The Commander-General of the Hosts of the Lord announced the bombing while it was in progress, as an educational action. Only one Word, only one Book. All other words, all other books were darkness, error. They were dirt. Let the Lord shine out! cried the pilots in their white uniforms and mirror-masks, back at the church at Colorado Base, facelessly facing the cameras and the singing, swaying crowds in ecstasy. Wipe away the filth and let the Lord shine out!

But the new Envoy who had arrived from Hain last year, Dalzul, was talking with the Fathers. They had admitted Dalzul to the Sanctum. There were neareals and holos and 2Ds of him in the net and Godsword. It seemed that the Commander-General of the Hosts had not received orders from the Fathers to destroy the Library of Washington. The error was not the Commander-General's, of course. Fathers made no errors. The pilots' zeal had been excessive, their action unauthorised. Word came from the Sanctum: the pilots were to be punished. They were led out in front of the ranks and the crowds and the cameras, publicly stripped of their weapons and white uniforms. Their hoods were taken off, their faces were bared. They were led away in shame to re-education.

All that was on the net, though Sutty could watch it without having to partiss in it, Father having disconnected the vr-proprios. Godsword was full of it, too. And full of the new Envoy, again. Dalzul was a Terran. Born right here on God's Earth, they said. A man who understood the men of Earth as no alien ever could, they said. A man from the stars who came to kneel at the feet of the Fathers and to discuss the implementation of the peaceful intentions of both the Holy Office and the Ekumen.

"Handsome fellow," Mother said, peering. "What is he? A white man?"

"Inordinately so," Father said.

"Wherever is he from?"

But no one knew. Iceland, Ireland, Siberia, everybody had a different story. Dalzul had left Terra to study on Hain, they all agreed on that. He had qualified very quickly as an Observer, then as a Mobile, and then had been sent back home: the first Terran Envoy to Terra.

"He left well over a century ago," Mother said. "Before the Unists took over East Asia and Europe. Before they even amounted to much in Western Asia. He must find his world quite changed."

Lucky man, Sutty was thinking. Oh lucky, lucky man! He got away, he went to Hain, he studied at the School on Ve, he's been where everything isn't God and hatred, where they've lived a million years of history, where they understand it all!

That same night she told Mother and Father that she wanted to study at the Training School, to try to qualify for the Ekumenical College. Told them very timidly, and found them undismayed, not even surprised. "This seems a rather good world to get off of, at present," Mother said.

They were so calm and favorable that she thought, Don't they realise, if I qualify and get sent to one of the other worlds, they'll never see me again? Fifty years, a hundred, hundreds, round trips in space were seldom less, often more. Didn't they care? It was only later that evening, when she was watching her father's profile at table, full lips, hook nose, hair beginning to go grey, a severe and fragile face, that it occurred to her that if she was sent to another world, she would never see them again either. They had thought about it before she did. Brief presence and long absence, that was all she and they had ever had. And made the best of it.

Excerpted from THE TELLING (c) Copyright 2000 by Ursula LeGuin. Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Harcourt. All rights reserved.

The Telling
by by Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
  • Mass Market Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Ace
  • ISBN-10: 0441011233
  • ISBN-13: 9780441011230