Voices

An Excerpt

"What do we have to do?" I asked.

He stood up. He picked up the small lantern he had brought. "First the darkness," he said. I followed him.

We went all the way down the long room, past the shelves where the books I feared were. The lantern gave small light, and I could not see them clearly. Beyond those last shelves the ceiling grew lower, and the light seemed less. I heard the sound of running water clearly now.

The floor had become uneven. Pavement gave way to dirt and rocks. His lame gait grew slower and more cautious.

I saw in the lantern's flickering light a small stream of water that ran from the darkness and dropped down into a deep basin, vanishing underground. We passed the basin and followed beside the water, upstream, on a rocky path. Shadows dodged away from the lantern, quick, huge, and shapeless, running black across raw rock walls. We walked deep into a high tunnel, a long cave. The walls drew closer as we kept walking farther.

The light glittered in the water of a welling spring and trembled reflected on the rock roof above. The Waylord stopped. He raised the lantern, and shadows leapt wildly. He blew it out, and we stood in darkness.

"Bless us and be blessed, spirits of the sacred place," his voice said, low and steady. "We are Sulter Galva of your people and Memer Galva of your people. We come in trust, honoring the sacred, following truth as we are shown it. We come in ignorance, honoring knowledge, asking to know. We come into darkness for light and into silence for words and into fear for blessing. Spirits of this place who made my people welcome, I ask an answer to my question. Will a rebellion, now, against the Alds who hold our city, fail or prevail?"

His voice made no echo off the rock walls. Silence snuffed it out utterly. There was no sound but the faint trickle of the spring, and my breathing, and his. It was absolutely dark. My eyes fooled me again and again, making faint lights flash, and colors blur and vanish in the black in front of me, that sometimes seemed to be right up against my eyes like a blindfold, and then deep and far as a starless sky, so that I feared to fall as if standing on a cliff's edge. Once I thought I saw a glimmer taking form, the shape of a letter, but it went out suddenly, utterly, as a spark goes out. We stood a long time, long enough that I began to feel the rock pressing through my thin shoe soles and the ache in my back from not moving. I was dizzy because there was nothing in the world, no thing at all, only blackness and the sound of water and the pressure of the rock under my feet. No air moved. It was cold. It was still.

I felt warmth, his warmth, a light touch on my arm. We murmured the blessing and turned round. Turning, I became dizzier, disoriented. I didn't know which way I was facing in this utter dark -- had I turned halfway or clear round? I reached out and found him there, the warmth, the touch of the cloth of his sleeve; I took hold of it and followed him. I wondered why he did not light the lantern, but dared not speak. It seemed a long way we went, far longer than the way in. I thought we were going the wrong way, deeper and deeper into the dark. I wouldn't believe it when I first began to see a change, a dimness growing out of darkness ahead of us, not visibility yet but the promise of it. I let go his arm then. But he, lame, took my arm, and held it till we could see our way.

When we were in the room again the space around us was airy and welcoming, and everything was distinct, full of a warm light, even down here at the cave end, the shadow end.

He looked at me searchingly. Then he turned and went to the shelves that had been built where the rock of the cave mouth gave place to plastered wall. Through the plaster here and there a rough cornice of rock stuck out. The shelves were set into the wall, not built out from it. On them were books, some small, some large and coarsely bound, some standing, others lying, maybe fifty or so in all. Some shelves were empty or held only a volume or two. The Waylord looked at the shelves as one does when seeking a book but not certain which or where it is, scanning. He looked again at me.

I looked at once for the white book, the book that had bled. I saw it instantly.

He saw where I was looking. He saw that I could not take my eyes from it. He went forward and took the white book from the shelf.

I stepped back when he did so, I couldn't help it. I said, "Is it bleeding?"

He looked at me, and at the book; he let it fall open gently in his hands.

"No," he said. He held it out to me.

I took another step back from it.

"Can you read it, Memer?"

He turned it and held it out to me again, open. I saw the small, square, white pages. The right-hand page was blank. On the left-hand page there were a few words written small.

I took a hard step forward, and a second step, my hands clenched. I read the words aloud: Broken mend broken.

The sound of my voice was terrible to me, it was not my voice at all but a deep, hollow, echoing sound swelling out all round my head. I cried out, "Put it back, put it away!" and turned and tried to walk back towards the lamp that shone in a sphere of gold far off at the other end of the room, but it was like walking in a dream, I could move my legs only slowly, heavily. He came and took my arm, and together we made our way back. It grew easier for me as we went. We reached the reading table. That was like coming home, coming into firelight out of the night, a haven.

I sat down in the chair with a great, shuddering sigh. He stood a little while stroking my shoulders gently, then went round the table and sat down facing me, as we had been before.

My teeth chattered. I wasn't cold any longer, but my teeth chattered. It was a while before I could make my mouth obey me at all.

"Was that the answer?"

"I don't know," he murmured.

"Was it — was it the oracle?" "Yes."
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Copyright © 2006 by Ursula K. Le Guin
Updated Sunday, 26-Feb-2017 17:28:50 PST