By Ursula K. Le Guin
Heya hey heya, hey heya heya, in that time that place, in the dark cold time, the dark cold place, she was going along, this woman, a human woman, walking in the hills, looking for something to eat. She was looking for brodiaea and calochortus bulbs before they bloomed, and putting out snares for brush rabbit, and gathering anything that could be food, because her people were hungry and so was she. Those were times when people had to work all day for enough to eat, times when even so they didn't have enough to eat, and people died of hunger, human and animal, they died of hunger and cold, so they say.
She was hunting and gathering in the hills, then, and started down into a canyon where she thought she saw some cattail down by the creek. She got into buckbrush and scrub oak and thorn, and had to push her way along; there weren't any deer trails, not even rabbit trails. She pushed along through the brush, trying to get down into the canyon. It was very dark, like it was going to rain. She thought, "Oh, before I get out of this brush, this time of year, I'll be covered with ticks!" She kept brushing at her neck and arms and feeling in her hair for ticks, trying to keep them from sticking to her. She didn't find any cattails. There was nothing to eat down in the canyon. She started to go along downstream, pushing through that thick underbrush, tearing her shirt and scratching her skin on the buckbrush and the thorn. She came into a place where the yellow broom grew very tall and close together. Nothing else grew there. The broom was half dead and grey-looking, without flowers yet. She pushed her way into the broom thicket, and ahead of her there, in the middle of the thicket, she saw a person standing. It was a wide, thin, dark person, with a little head, and one hand without fingers, just two prongs, like pliers or pincers. It stood there waiting. It had no eyes, they say.
She stopped; she stood still. Then she tried to back away very quietly as she had come. But the broom thicket had closed behind her and it made a lot of noise when she tried to go back. She could only go forward quietly. The person stood still, not moving, not looking, so still she began not to be sure it was alive. She thought, "Maybe I can get past it." She went forward very quietly, moving softly, smoothly, quickly. The waiting person didn't move. She saw how thin and flat it was, dry-looking, and thought it must be something that had never been alive. She came on past it. She was beside it. She passed it and now her back was to it. It jumped, then. It jumped, and caught her with its gripping hand at the back of her neck. It held her and said, "Take me home with you!"
She struggled and said, "Let me go!" She tried to get free but it held on. She was strangling. It held tighter and tighter, and she said, "All right, I'll take you home with me!"
"That's good," the person said. It let go of her then. When she could turn and look at it, it looked like a man, a human being, dark and thin, with a small head and small eyes, but with two arms and two hands with thumb and fingers, and all seeming to be the way a human being should be. "Go on," the man said, "and I'll follow."
So she went on, and the man followed.
She came to where she lived, a little town, just a few houses, a few families, somewhere in that dark, cold valley. She came there, the man following, and her people said, "Who is this with you?"
She said, "A hungry man."
They said, "He certainly is thin. He can share what we have to eat."
She tried to say, "No! Send him away!" -- but when she started to speak her throat closed and she couldn't breathe, as if he were still holding her by the neck. She could say nothing against him.
They asked the man what he was called, and he answered, "Dira."
The woman had to open her door to Dira. He came in and sat down by her fire. She had to share the food she had brought for her children and her mother with him. There wasn't much: a few bulbs and greens, that was all she had found. They were all still hungry when they had eaten, but Dira said, "Ah, that was good! That was fine!" and he seemed not so thin already.
He asked the woman, "Where is your husband?"
She said, "He died last year."
Dira said, "I'll take his place."
She tried to say, "No!" but she couldn't: her throat tightened till she thought her head would burst, and she could not breathe, until she said, "Yes."
So Dira was her husband, and she made the best of it.
Her mother said after a while, "This husband you picked up in the woods, he doesn't do any work."
"He's still weak from starving so long," she said.
People in town said, "Why doesn't Dira farm, or hunt, or gather? He stays in the house all day and night."
She said, "He's ill."
They said, "Maybe he was ill when he cam here, but look at him now."
Because he had become quite fat -- every day he got fatter, and his skin was ruddy instead of dark.
"He's fat, and you and your family are all thinner than ever -- how is that?" they asked her. But she could not say. When she tried to speak against Dira, even when he was not there with her, she strangled. The tears came into her eyes. She said, "I don't know."
They had planted gardens, but the summer was dark and cold. The seeds rotted in the ground. There was little to hunt; there were not many Blue Clay animals, because they too were starving and sick; there were few Obsidian animals. Nobody had food. The woman's children grew weak and sick, with big, swollen bellies. She wept, but her husband laughed. "See, they're like me!" he said. "We all have big bellies!" He ate everything: he grew fatter, thicker, redder, every day. The family had one cow, and there was enough grass to keep her fit; it was her milk that kept the children alive. Dira went out one day into the fields. The woman said, "There, see, my husband is going to work!" He went to where the cow was grazing, and she said, "He's going to look after our sister there." But what he did was drink the cow's blood, sucking it. He did this every day, and the cow could not give milk; he went on doing it, and she lay down and died. He butchered her there in the field and came home carrying the meat. He had to go back and forth several times for it all. "See how hard my husband works!" the woman said. There were tears running down her face. They saw that, her townspeople.
Her children had grown very weak without milk. The husband, Dira, always spoke kindly to them, but he gave them no meat. He ate it all. Sometimes he would say to them, the children, their mother, their grandmother, "Here, don't you want this meat?" You don't want this food?" But when he said that, their throats would tighten and close, so they could only shake their heads; then he would eat the meat, smiling and joking. One of the children died. The other, the elder, began dying too. Dira was so fat he could no longer get up; he sat by the fire all day and night. His belly was huge, a huge ball. His skin was tight and pale red all over. His eyes were covered with fat. His arms and legs were stubs coming out of that great ball of fatness. His wife and her mother stayed beside the dying child.
The people of the town spoke together. They talked awhile, and decided to kill Dira. The men were angry and said, "A knife across that throat, a bullet in that belly!" But there was a lame woman, a visionary, who said, "Not that way, not that way. This is not a man!"
"But we are going to kill him," they said.
"If you kill him that way, his wife and her family will die with him. You must not spill all that blood in him. It is their blood," she said.
"Then we will suffocate him," one of the men said.
"That is the way," the lame woman said.
They went, all of them, to the house. The door was shut. They pushed it open and came in. The grandmother and mother and child lay like sticks of wood, like old bones on the floor, too weak to sit up, dying. The husband sat by the fire like a great red ball of skin. When he saw the people he changed into his own form, and put out his pliers hand, but he was too fat to move, and couldn't catch them. They had brought with them a basin of eucalyptus oil, and they held Dira down and pushed his head into the oil, and held it there a long time. A long time he struggled and did not die, but they kept holding his head under the oil, and at last his great, wide, fat body stiffened and began to shrink. It shrank and shrank, and the wife and her mother and child sat up. It shrank more, and they stood up. It shrank down no larger than a fist, and they could speak again. It shrank down no larger than a walnut, and they could move freely and say what had happened. It shrank no larger than a thumbnail, flat and dry and dark, and the people, greeting and comforting the wife and her family, didn't keep careful watch on it. It shrank down to something not as big as a lentil, and then scrambled out of the basin of oil, and out the door, back into the hills, to wait somewhere for another person to come by. It's still waiting there, they say.
Always Coming Home