Read A Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Stories Online

Authors: Ursula K. Le Guin

Tags: #Fiction

A Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Stories (9 page)

“I always looked at the colors of the rocks,” Un said in a low voice, looking down.

“So did I,” Ko said. “And the grain and texture, too. I started that wiggly part in the Crystal Angles,” pointing at a very
ancient and famous section of the terrace, designed by the great OholothL. “Last year, after the late flood, when we lost
so many stones from the design, remember? I got a lot of amethysts from the Ubi Caves. I love purple!” His tone was defiant.

Bu looked at a circle of small, smooth turquoises inlaid in a corner of a set of interlocked rectangles. “I like blue-green,”
Bu said in a whisper. “I like blue-green. He likes purple. We see the colors of the stones. We make the pattern. We make the
pattern beautifully.”

“Should we tell the Professors, do you think?” little Ga asked, getting excited. “They might give us extra food.”

Old Un opened all his eyes very wide. “Don’t breathe a word of this to the Professors! They don’t like patterns to change.
You know that. It makes them nervous. They might get nervous and punish us.”

“We are not afraid,” Bu said, in a whisper.

“They wouldn’t understand,” Ko said. “They don’t look at colors. They don’t listen to us. And if they did, they’d know it
was just nurs talking and didn’t mean anything. Wouldn’t they? But I’m going back to the Caves and get some more amethysts
and finish that wiggly part,” pointing to the Crystal Angles, where repairs had scarcely begun. “They’ll never even see it.”

Ga’s naughty little blit, Professor Endl’s son, was digging up pebbles from the Superior Triangle, and had to be spanked.
“Oh,” Ga sighed, “he’s all oblblit! I just don’t know what to do with him.”

“He’ll go to School next year,” Un said drily. “They’ll know what to do with him.”

“But what will I do without him?” said Ga.

The sun was well up in the sky now, and Professors could be seen looking out from their bedroom windows over the terraces.
They would not like to see nurs loitering, and small blits were, of course, absolutely forbidden within the college walls.
Bu and the others hastily returned to the nests and workhouses.

Ko went to the Ubi Caves that same day, and Bu went along; they came back with sacks of fine amethysts, and worked for several
days completing the wiggly part, which they called the Purple Waves, in the repair and maintenance of the Crystal Angles.
Ko was happy in the work, and sang and joked, and at night he and Bu made love. But Bu remained preoccupied. She kept studying
the patterns of color on the terraces, and finding more and more of them, and more and more meanings and ideas in them.

“Are they all about nurs?” old Un asked. His arthritis kept him from the terraces, but Bu reported her findings to him every

“No,” Bu said, “most of them are about obis and nurs both. And blits, too. But nurs made them. So they’re different. Obl patterns
are never really about nurs. Only about obls and what obls think. But when you begin to read the colors they say the most
interesting things!”

Bu was so excited and persuasive that other nurs of Obling began studying the color patterns, learning how to read their meanings.
The practice spread to other nests, and soon to other towns. Before long, nurs all up and down the river were discovering
that their terraces, too, were full of wild designs in colored stones, and surprising messages concerning obls, nurs, and

Many nurs, however, upset by the whole idea, steadfastly refused to see patterns in color or to allow that the color of a
stone could have any significance at all. “The obls count on us not to change things,” these nurs said. “We are their nurobls.
They depend on us to keep their patterns neat, and keep the blits quiet, and maintain order, so that they can do important
work. If we start
inventing new meanings, changing things, disturbing the patterns, where will it end? It isn’t fair to the obls.”

Bu, however, would hear none of that; she was full of her discovery. She no longer listened in silence. She spoke. She went
about among the workhouses, speaking. And one evening, summoning up her courage, and wearing around her neck on a thong a
perfect, polished turquoise that she called her selfstone, she went up onto the terraces. She crossed the terraces among the
startled Professors, and came to the Rectory Mosaic, where Astl the Rectoress, a famous scholar, strolled in solitary meditation,
her ancient rifle slung on her back, wreaths of smoke trailing from her reeking pipe. Not even a Full Professor would have
interrupted the Rectoress at such a sacred time. But Bu went straight to her, crouched, covered her eyes, and said in a tremulous
but clear voice, “Lady Rectoress, ma’am! Would the Lady Rectoress in her kindness answer a question I have?”

The Rectoress was truly displeased and upset by this disorderly behavior. She turned to the nearest Professor and said, “This
nur is insane; have it removed, please.”

Bu was sentenced to ten days in jail, to be raped by Students whenever they pleased, and then sent to the flagstone quarries
for a hundred days.

When she returned to the nest, she was pregnant from one of the rapes, and quite thin from working in the quarries, but she
still wore her turquoise stone. All her nest-mates and work-friends greeted her, singing songs which they had made out of
the meanings of the colored patterns on the terraces. Ko comforted her with tender affection that night, and told her that
her blit would be his blit, and her nest his nest.

Not many days after, she entered the college (via the kitchens), and made her way (with the assistance of the serving-nurs)
to the private room of the Canon.

The Canon of Obling College was a very old obl, renowned for his knowledge of metaphysical linguistics. He woke slowly, mornings.
This morning he woke slowly and gazed with some puzzlement at the servingnur
which had come to open his curtains and serve his breakfast. It seemed to be a different one. He almost reached for his gun,
but was too sleepy.

“Hullo,” he said. “You’re new, aren’t you?”

“I want you to answer a question I have,” said the nur.

The Canon woke further, and stared at this amazing creature. “At least have the decency to cover your eyes, nur!” he said,
but he was not really very upset. He was so old that he was no longer quite sure what the patterns were, and so a change in
them did not trouble him as much as it might have done.

“Nobody else can answer me,” said the nur. “Please do. Do you know if a blue-green stone in a pattern might be a word?”

“Oh, yes, indeed,” said the Canon, becoming alert. “Although, of course, all verbal color-significance is long obsolete. Of
mere antiquarian interest, to old fuddy-duddies such as myself, ha. Hue-words don’t occur even in the most archaic patterns.
Only in the most ancient Books of Record.”

“What does it mean?”

The Canon wondered if he were dreaming—discussing historical linguistics with a nur, before breakfast!—But it was an entertaining
dream. “The hue of blue-green— such as that stone you seem to be wearing as an ornament—might, in its adjectival form within
a pattern, have indicated a quality of untrammeled volition. As a noun, the color would have functioned to signify, how shall
I put it?—an absence of coercion; a lack of control; a condition of self-determination—”

“Freedom,” the nur said. “Does it mean freedom?”

“No, my dear,” said the Canon. “It did. But it does not.”


“Because the word is obsolete,” said the Canon, beginning to tire of this inexplicable dialogue. “Now go away like a good
nur and tell my servant to bring my breakfast.”

“Look out the window,” the wild-eyed nur said, in so passionate a voice that the Canon was quite alarmed. “Look out the window
at the terraces! Look at the colors
of the stones! Look at the patterns the nurs make, the designs we have made, the meanings we have written! Look for the freedom!
Oh please do look!”

And with that final plea, the amazing apparition vanished. The Canon lay staring at his bedroom door, and in a moment it opened.
His old serving-nur came in with his tray of stonecrop tea and smoking hot kippered lichen. “Good morning, Lord Canon, sir!”
she said cheerfully. “Awake already? A lovely morning!” And after setting down the tray by his bed, she swept the curtains
open wide.

“Was there a young nur in here just now?” the Canon asked, rather nervously.

“Certainly not, sir. At least, not that I know of,” said the serving-nur. But did she for a moment glance quite directly,
knowingly—did she have the audacity to
at him—? Surely not. “Lovely the terraces are this morning,” she went on. “Your Canonitude ought to have a look.”

“Get out, out,” the Canon growled, and the nur left with a demure curtsy, covering her eyes.

The Canon ate his breakfast in bed and then got up. He went to the window to look out on the terraces of his college in the
morning light.

For a moment he thought he was dreaming again, seeing entirely different patterns than those he had seen all his long life
on those terraces—wild designs of curves and colors, amazing phrases, unimagined significances, a wonderful newness of meaning
and beauty—and then he opened all his eyes wide, very wide, and blinked; and it was gone. The familiar, true order of the
terraces lay clear and regular in the morning light. And there was nothing else to see. The Canon turned away from the window
and opened a book.

So he did not see the long line of nurobls coming up from the nests and workhouses down below the boulder walls, carrying
blits and dancing as they came, dancing and singing across the terraces. He heard the singing, but only as a noise without
significance. It was not until the first rock flew through his window that he looked up and cried out in agitation, “What
is the meaning of this?”


For Roussel Sargent, who invented it

The small caste of the Tanners was a sacred one. To eat food prepared by a Tanner would entail a year’s purification to a
Tinker or a Sculptor, and even low-power castes such as the Traders had to be cleansed by a night’s ablutions after dealing
for leather goods. Chumo had been a Tanner since she was five years old and had heard the willows whisper all night long at
the Singing Sands. She had had her proving day, and since then had worn a Tanner’s madder-red and blue shirt and doublet,
woven of linen on a willowwood loom. She had made her masterpiece, and since then had worn the Master Tanner’s neckband of
dried vauti-tuber incised with the double line and double circles. So clothed and so ornamented she stood among the willows
by the burying ground, waiting for the funeral procession of her brother, who had broken the law and betrayed his caste. She
stood erect and silent, gazing towards the village by the river and listening for the drum.

She did not think; she did not want to think. But she saw her brother Kwatewa in the reeds down by the river, running ahead
of her, a little boy too young to have caste, too young to be polluted by the sacred, a
crazy little boy pouncing on her out of the tall reeds shouting, “I’m a mountain lion!”

A serious little boy watching the river run, asking, “Does it ever stop? Why can’t it stop running, Chumo?”

A five-year-old coming back from the Singing Sands, coming straight to her, bringing her the joy, the crazy, serious joy that
shone in his round face—”Chumo! I heard the sand singing! I heard it! I have to be a Sculptor, Chumo!”

She had stood still. She had not held out her arms. And he had checked his run towards her and stood still, the light going
out of his face. She was only his womb-sister. He would have truesibs, now. He and she were of different castes. They would
not touch again.

Ten years after that day she had come with most of the townsfolk to Kwatewa’s proving day, to see the sand-sculpture he had
made in the Great Plain Place where the Sculptors performed their art. Not a breath of wind had yet rounded off the keen edges
or leveled the lovely curves of the classic form he had executed with such verve and sureness, the Body of Amakumo. She saw
admiration and envy in the faces of his truebrothers and truesisters. Standing aside among the sacred castes, she heard the
speaker of the Sculptors dedicate Kwatewa’s proving piece to Amakumo. As his voice ceased a wind came out of the desert north,
Amakumo’s wind, the maker hungry for the made—Amakumo the Mother eating her body, eating herself. Even while they watched,
the wind destroyed Kwatewa’s sculpture. Soon there was only a shapeless lump and a feathering of white sand blown across the
proving ground. Beauty had gone back to the Mother. That the sculpture had been destroyed so soon and so utterly was a great
honor to the maker.

The funeral procession was approaching. She heard or imagined she heard the drumbeat, soft, no more than a heartbeat.

Her own proving piece had been the traditional one for Tanner women, a drumhead. Not a funeral drum but a dancing drum, loud,
gaudy with red paint and tassels.
“Your drumhead, your maidenhead!” her true-brothers called it, and made fierce teasing jokes, but they couldn’t make her blush.
Tanners had no business blushing. They were outside shame. It had been an excellent drum, chosen at once from the proving
ground by an old Musician, who had played it so much she soon wore off the bright paint and lost the red tassels; but the
drumhead lasted through the winter and till the Roppi Ceremony, when it finally split wide open during the drumming for the
all-night dancing under the moons, when Chumo and Karwa first twined their wristplaits. Chumo had been proud all winter when
she heard the voice of her drum loud and clear across the dancing ground, she had been proud when it split and gave itself
to the Mother; but that had been nothing to the pride she had felt in Kwatewa’s sculptures. For if the work be well done and
the thing made be powerful, it belongs to the Mother. She will desire it; she will not wait for it to give itself, but will
take it. So the child dying young is called the Mother’s Child. Beauty, the most sacred of all things, is hers; the body of
the Mother is the most beautiful of all things. So all that is made in the likeness of the Mother is made in sand.

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