Gifts, page 1
Rejecting the Gift
IT'S A QUEER business, making oneself blind.
To cheat, to look, one glance, only a glance—the temptations of course were endless. Every step, every act that was now so immensely difficult and complicated and awkward could become easy and natural so easily and naturally. Just lift the blindfold, just for a moment, just from one eye, just take one peek....
I did not lift the blindfold, but it did slip several times, and my eyes would dazzle with all the brightness of the world's day before I could close them.
Learning to be blind was a queer business, yes, and a hard one, but I kept to it. The more impatient I was with the helplessness and dreariness of being sightless the more I raged against the blindfold, the more I feared to lift it. It saved me from the horror of destroying what I did not mean to destroy. While I wore it, I could not kill what I loved. I remembered what my fear and anger had done. I remembered the moment when I thought I had destroyed my father.
If I could not learn to use my power, I could learn how not to use it.
He was lost when he came to us, and I fear the silver spoons he stole from us didn't save him when he ran away and went up into the high domains. Yet in the end the lost man, the runaway man was our guide.
Gry called him the runaway man. When he first came, she was sure he’d done some terrible thing, a murder or a betrayal, and was escaping vengeance. What else would bring a Lowlander here, among us?
"Ignorance," I said. "He knows nothing of us. He's not afraid of us."
"He said people down there warned him not to come up among the witches."
"But he knows nothing about the gifts," I said. "It's all just talk, to him. Legends, lies..."
We were both right, no doubt. Certainly Emmon was running away, if only from a well-earned reputation for thievery, or from boredom; he was as restless, as fearless and inquisitive and inconsequential as a hound puppy, trotting wherever his nose led him. Recalling the accent and turns of speech he had, I know now that he came from far in the south, farther than Algalanda, where tales of the Uplands were just that—tales: old rumors of the distant northland, where wicked witch-folk lived in icy mountains and did impossible things.
If he'd believed what they told him down in Danner, he'd never have come up to Caspromant. If he'd believed us, he never would have gone on higher in the mountains. He loved to hear stories, so he listened to ours, but he didn't believe them. He was a city man, he'd had some education, he'd travelled the length of the Lowlands. He knew the world. Who were we, me and Gry? What did we know, a blind boy and a grim girl, sixteen years old, stuck in the superstition and squalor of the desolate hill farms that we so grandly called our domains? He led us on, in his lazy kindness, to talk about the great powers we had, but while we talked he was seeing the bare, hard way we lived, the cruel poverty, the cripples and backward people of the farms, seeing our ignorance of everything outside these dark hills, and saying to himself, Oh yes, what great powers they have, poor brats!
Gry and I feared that when he left us he went to Germant. It is hard to think he may still be there, alive but a slave, with legs twisted like corkscrews, or his face made monstrous for Erroy's amusement, or his eyes truly blinded, as mine were not. For Erroy wouldn't have suffered his careless airs, his insolence, for an hour.
I took some pains to keep him away from my father when his tongue was flapping, but only because Canoc's patience was short and his mood dark, not because I feared he'd ever use his gift without good cause. In any case he paid little heed to Emmon or anyone else. Since my mother’s death his mind was all given to grief and rage and rancor. He huddled over his pain, his longing for vengeance. Gry, who knew all the nests and eyries for miles around, once saw a carrion eagle brooding his pair of silvery, grotesque eaglets in a nest up on the Sheer, after a shepherd killed the mother bird who hunted for them both. So my father brooded and starved.
To Gry and me, Emmon was a treasure, a bright creature come into our gloom. He fed our hunger. For we were starving too.
He would never tell us enough about the Lowlands. He'd give an answer of some kind to every question I asked, but often a joking answer, evasive or merely vague. There was probably a good deal about his past life that he didn't want us to know, and anyhow he wasn't a keen observer and clear reporter, as Gry was when she was my eyes. She could describe exactly how the new bull calf looked, his bluish coat and knobby legs and little furry hornbuds, so that I could all but see him. But if I asked Emmon to tell about the city of Derris Water, all he said was that it wasn't much of a city and the market was dull. Yet I knew, because my mother had told me, that Derris Water had tall red houses and deep streets, that steps of slate led up from the docks and moorages where the river traffic came and went, that there was a market of birds, and a market of fish, and a market of spices and incense and honey, a market for old clothes and a market for new ones, and the great pottery fairs to which people came from all up and down the Trond River, even from the far shores of the ocean.
Maybe Emmon had had bad luck with his thieving in Derris Water.
Whatever the reason, he preferred to ask us the questions and sit back at ease to listen to us—to me, mostly. I was always a talker, if there was anybody to listen. Gry had a long habit of silence and watchfulness, but Emmon could draw her out.
I doubt he knew how lucky he'd been in finding us two, but he appreciated our making him welcome and keeping him comfortable through a bitter, rainy winter. He was sorry for us. He was bored, no doubt. He was inquisitive.
"So what is it this fellow up at Geremant does that's so fearsome?" he'd ask, his tone just skeptical enough that I'd try as hard as I could to convince him of the truth of what I said. But these were matters that were not much talked about, even among people with the gift. It seemed unnatural to speak of them aloud.
"The gift of that lineage is called the twisting," I said at last.
"Twisting? Like a sort of dancing?"
"No." The words were hard to find, and hard to say. "Twisting people."
"Making them turn around?"
"No. Their arms, legs. Necks. Bodies." I twisted my own body a bit with discomfort at the subject. Finally I said, "You saw old Gonnen, that woodsman, up over Knob Hill. We passed him yesterday on the cart road. Gry told you who he was."
"All bent over like a nutcracker."
"Brantor Erroy did that to him."
"Doubled him up like that? What for?"
"A punishment. The brantor said he came on him picking up wood in Gere Forest."
After a little, Emmon said, "Rheumatism will do that to a man."
"Gonnen was a young man then."
"So you don't yourself recall it happening."
"No," I said, vexed by his airy incredulity. "But he does. And my father does. Gonnen told him. Gonnen said he wasn't in Geremant at all, but only near the borderline, in our woods. Brantor Erroy saw him and shouted, and Gonnen was scared, and started to run away with the load of wood on his back. He fell. When he tried to stand, his back was bent over and hunched, the way it is now. If he tries to stand up, his wife said, he screams with the pain."
"And how did the brantor do this to him?"
Emmon had learned the word from us; he said he'd never heard it in the Lowlands. A brantor is the master or mistress of a domain, which is to say the chief and most gifted of a lineage. My father was Brantor of Caspromant. Gry's mother was Brantor of the Barres of Roddmant and her father Brantor of the Rodds of that domain. We two were their heirs, their nestling eaglets.
I hesitated to answer Emmons question. His tone had not been mocking, but I didn't know if I should say anything at all about the powers of the gift.
Gry answered him. "He'd have looked at the man," she said in her qu
"What kind of words?"
Gry was silent; maybe she shrugged. "The Gere gift's not mine," she said at last. "We don't know its ways."
"The way a gift acts."
"Well, how does your gift act, what does it do, then?" Emmon asked her, not teasing, alive with curiosity. "It's something to do with hunting?"
"The Barre gift is calling" Gry said.
"Calling? What do you call?"
"Deer?" After each question came a little silence, long enough for a nod. I imagined Gry's face, intent yet closed, as she nodded. "Hares?—Wild swine?— Bear?— Well, if you called a bear and it came to you, what would you do then?"
"The huntsmen would kill it." She paused, and said, "I don't call to the hunt."
Her voice was not wind in leaves as she said it, but wind on stone.
Our friend certainly didn't understand what she meant, but her tone may have chilled him a little. He didn't go on with her, but turned to me. "And you, Orrec, your gift is—?"
"The same as my father's," I said. "The Caspro gift is called the undoing. And I will not tell you anything about it, Emmon. Forgive me."
"It's you must forgive my clumsiness, Orrec," Emmon said after a little silence of surprise, and his voice was so warm, with the courtesy and softness of the Lowlands in it, like my mother's voice, that my eyes prickled with tears under the seal that shut them.
He or Gry built up our end of the fire. The warmth of it came round my legs again, very welcome. We were sitting in the big hearth of the Stone House of Caspromant, in the south corner, where seats are built deep into the stones of the chimneyside. It was a cold evening of late January. The wind up in the chimney hooted like great owls. The spinning women were gathered over at the other side of the hearth where the light was better. They talked a little or droned their long, soft, dull spinning songs, and we three in our corner went on talking.
"Well, what about the others, then?" Emmon asked, irrepressible. "You can tell about them, maybe? The other brantors, all over these mountains here, in their stone towers, eh, like this one? on their domains— What powers do they have? What are their gifts? What are they feared for?"
There was always that little challenge of half-disbelief, which I could not resist meeting. "The women of the lineage of Cordemant have the power of blinding," I said, "or making deaf, or taking speech away."
"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 gift of the knife," she said.
"And that would be..."
"To send a spellknife into a man's 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 brantor's 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?"
"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?"
To 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 th
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 mother's 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 father's father, for that was as far back in history as my understanding went. I knew my grandfather's 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 mare's 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.
by Ursula LeGuin have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes