The Eye of the Heron

Ursula K. Le Guin

Starscape

EYE OF THE HERON
1
In the sunlight in the center of a ring of trees Lev sat cross-legged, his head bent above his hands.
A small creature crouched in the warm, shallow cup of his palms. He was not holding it; it had decided or consented to be there. It looked like a little toad with wings. The wings, folded into a peak above its back, were dun-colored with shadowy streaks, and its body was shadow-colored. Three gold eyes like large pinheads adorned its head, one on each side and one in the center of the skull. This upward-looking central eye kept watch on Lev. Lev blinked. The creature changed. Dusty pinkish fronds sprouted out fromunder its folded wings. For a moment it appeared to be a feathery ball, hard to see clearly, for the fronds or feathers trembled continually, blurring its outlines. Gradually the blur died away. The toad with wings sat there as before, but now it was light blue. It scratched its left eye with the hindmost of its three left feet. Lev smiled. Toad, wings, eyes, legs vanished. A flat mothlike shape crouched on Lev's palm, almost invisible because it was, except for some shadowy patches, exactly the same color and texture as his skin. He sat motionless. Slowly the blue toad with wings reappeared, one golden eye keeping watch on him. It walked across his palm and up the curve of his fingers. The six tiny, warm feet gripped and released, delicate and precise. It paused on the tip of his fingers and cocked its head to look at him with its right eye while its left and central eyes scanned the sky. It gathered itself into an arrow shape, shot out two translucent underwings twice the length of its body, and flew off in a long effortless glide toward a sunlit slope beyond the ring of trees.
"Lev?"
"Entertaining a wotsit." He got up, and joined Andre outside the tree-ring.
"Martin thinks we might get home tonight."
"Hope he's right," Lev said. He picked up his backpack and joined the end of the line of seven men. They set off in single file, not talking except when one down the line called to indicate to the leader a possible easier way to take, or when the second in line, carrying the compass, told the leader to bear right or left. Their direction was southwestward. The going wasnot hard, but there was no path and there were no landmarks. The trees of the forest grew in circles, twenty to sixty trees forming a ring around a clear central space. In the valleys of the rolling land the tree-rings grew so close, often interlocking, that the travelers' way was a constant alternation of forcing through undergrowth between dark shaggy trunks, clear going across spongy grass in the sunlit circle, then again shade, foliage, crowded stems and trunks. On the hillsides the rings grew farther apart, and sometimes there was a long view over winding valleys endlessly dappled with the soft rough red circles of the trees.
As the afternoon wore on a haze paled the sun. Clouds thickened from the west. A fine, small rain began to fall. It was mild, windless. The travelers' bare chests and shoulders shone as if oiled. Waterdrops clung in their hair. They went on, bearing steadily south by west. The light grew grayer. In the valleys, in the circles of the trees, the air was misty and dark.
The lead man, Martin, topping a long stony rise of land, turned and called out. One by one they climbed up and stood beside him on the crest of the ridge. Below a broad river lay shining and colorless between dark beaches.
The eldest of them, Holdfast, got to the top last and stood looking down at the river with an expression of deep satisfaction. "Hullo there," he murmured, as to a friend.
"Which way to the boats?" asked the lad with the compass.
"Upstream," Martin said, tentative.
"Down," Lev proposed. "Isn't that the high point of the ridge, west there?"
They discussed it for a minute and decided to try downstream. For a little longer before they went on they stood in silence on the ridge top, from which they had a greater view of the world than they had had for many days. Across the river the forest rolled on southward in endless interlocking ring patterns under hanging clouds. Eastward, upriver, the land rose steeply; to the west the river wound in gray levels between lower hills. Where it disappeared from sight a faint brightness lay upon it, a hint of sunlight on the open sea. Northward, behind the travelers' backs, the forested hills, the days and miles of their journey, lay darkening into rain and night.
In all that immense, quiet landscape of hills, forest, river, no thread of smoke; no house; no road.
They turned west, following the spine of the ridge. After a kilometer or so the boy Welcome, in the lead now, hailed and pointed down to two black chips on the curve of a shingle beach, the boats they had pulled up there many weeks before.
They descended to the beach by sliding and scrambling down the steep ridge. Down by the river it seemed darker, and colder, though the rain had ceased.
"Dark soon. Should we camp?" Holdfast asked, in a reluctant tone.
They looked at the gray mass of the river sliding by, the gray sky above it.
"It'll be lighter out on the water," Andre said, pulling out the paddles from under one of the beached, overturned canoes.
A family of pouchbats had nested among the paddles. The half-grown youngsters hopped and scuttered off across the beach, squawking morosely, while the exasperated parents swooped after them. The men laughed, and swung the light canoes up to their shoulders.
They launched and set off, four to a boat. The paddles lifting caught the silver light of the west. Out in midstream the sky seemed lighter, and higher, the banks low and black on either hand.
O when we come, O when we come to Lisboa, The white ships will be waiting, O when we come ... .
One man in the first canoe began the song, two or three voices in the second picked it up. Around the brief, soft singing lay the silence of the wilderness, under and over it, before and after it.
The riverbanks grew lower, farther away, more shadowy. They were now on a silent flood of gray half a mile wide. The sky darkened between glance and glance. Then far to the south one point of light shone out, remote and clear, breaking the old dark.
 
Nobody was awake in the villages. They came up through the paddy fields, guided by their swinging lanterns. They smelled the heavy fragrance of peat-smoke in the air. They came quiet as the rain up the street between the little sleeping houses, until Welcome let out a yell: "Hey, we're home!" and flungopen the door of his family's house. "Wake up, Mother! It's me!"
Within five minutes half the town was in the street. Lights were lit, doors stood open, children danced about, a hundred voices talked, shouted, questioned, welcomed, praised.
Lev went to meet Southwind as she came hurrying down the street, sleepy-eyed, smiling, a shawl drawn over her tangled hair. He put out his hands and took hers, stopping her. She looked up into his face and laughed. "You're back, you're back!"
Then her look changed; she glanced around very swiftly at the cheerful commotion of the street, and back at Lev.
"Oh," she said, "I knew it. I knew."
"On the way north. About ten days out. We were climbing down into a stream gorge. The rocks slipped under his hands. There was a nest of rock scorpions. He was all right at first. But there were dozens of stings. His hands began to swell ... ."
His hands tightened on the girl's; she still looked into his eyes.
"He died in the night."
"In much pain?"
"No," Lev said, lying.
Tears filled his eyes.
"So he's there," he said. "We made a cairn of white boulders. Near a waterfall. So he--so he's there."
Behind them in the commotion and chatter a woman's voice sounded clearly: "But where's Timmo?"
Southwind's hands went loose in Lev's; she seemed to grow smaller, to shrink down, shrink away. "Comewith me," he said, and they went in silence, his arm about her shoulders, to her mother's house.
Lev left her there with Timmo's mother and her own mother. He came out of the house and stood hesitant, then returned slowly toward the crowd. His father came forward to meet him; Lev saw the curly gray hair, the eyes seeking through torchlight. Sasha was a slight, short man; as they embraced Lev felt the bones beneath the skin, hard and frail.
"You were with Southwind?"
"Yes. I can't--"
He clung for a minute to his father, and the hard, thin hand stroked his arm. The torchlight blurred and stung in his eyes. When he let go, Sasha drew back to look at him, saying nothing, intent dark eyes, the mouth hidden by a bristly gray mustache.
"You've been all right, Father?"
Sasha nodded. "You're tired. Come on home." As they started down the street he said, "Did you find the promised land?"
"Yes. A valley. A river-valley. Five kilos from the sea. Everything we need. And beautiful--the mountains above it--Range behind range, higher and higher, higher than the clouds, whiter--You can't believe how high you have to look to see the highest peaks." He had stopped walking.
"Mountains in between? Rivers?"
Lev looked down from the white visionary heights, into his father's eyes.
"Enough to keep the Bosses from following us there?"
After a moment Lev smiled. "Maybe," he said.
 
 
It was the middle of the bog-rice harvest, so that many of the farming people could not come, but all the villages sent a man or woman to Shantih to hear what the explorers reported and what the people said. It was afternoon, still raining; the big open place in front of the Meeting House was crowded with umbrellas made of the broad, red, papery leaves of the thatch-tree. Under the umbrellas people stood or squatted on leaf-mats in the mud, and cracked nuts, and talked, until at last the little bronze bell of the Meeting House went tonka-tonka-tonk; then they all looked at the porch of the Meeting House, where Vera stood ready to speak.
She was a slender woman with iron-gray hair, a narrow nose, dark oval eyes. Her voice was strong and clear, and while she spoke there was no other sound but the quiet patter of the rain, and now and then the chirp of a little child in the crowd, quickly hushed.
She welcomed the explorers back. She spoke of Timmo's death, and, very quietly and briefly, of Timmo himself, as she had seen him on the day the exploring party left. She spoke of their hundred-day trek through the wilderness. They had mapped a great area east and north of Songe Bay, she said, and they had found what they went to find--a site for a new settlement, and a passable way to it. "A good many of us here," she said, "don't like the idea of a new settlement so far from Shantih. And among us now are also some of our neighbors from the City, who may wish to join in our plans and discussions. The whole matter must be fully considered and freely discussed.So first let Andre and Lev speak for the explorers, and tell us what they saw and found."
Andre, a stocky, shy man of thirty, described their journey to the north. His voice was soft and he did not speak easily, but the crowd listened intently to his sketch of the world beyond their long-familiar fields. Some, towards the back, craned until they saw the men from the City, of whose presence Vera had politely warned them. There they were near the porch, six men in jerkins and high boots: Bosses' bodyguards, each with a long sheathed knife on the thigh and a whip, the thong neatly curled, tucked into the belt.
Andre mumbled to a close and gave place to Lev, a young man, slight and rawboned, with thick, black, bright hair. Lev also began hesitantly, groping for words to describe the valley they had found and why they thought it most suitable for settlement. As he spoke his voice warmed and he began to forget himself, as if he saw before him what he described: the wide valley and the river which they had named Serene, the lake above it, the bog-lands where rice grew wild, the forests of good timber, the sunny slopes where orchards and root crops could be planted and houses could stand free of the mud and damp. He told of the river mouth, a bay full of shellfish and edible kelp; and he spoke of the mountains that stood above the valley to the north and east, protecting it from the winds that made the winter a weariness of mud and cold at Songe. "The peaks of them go up and up into the silence and sunlight above the clouds," he said. "They shelter the valley, like a mother with a child in her arms. We called them the Mountains ofthe Mahatma. It was to see if the mountains kept off the storms that we stayed so long there, fifteen days. Early autumn there is like midsummer here, only the nights are colder; the days were sunny, and no rain. Holdfast thought there might be three rice harvests a year there. There's a good deal of fruit in the forests, and the fishing in the river and the bay shores would help feed the first year's settlers till the first harvest. The mornings are so bright there! It wasn't just to see how the weather was that we stayed. It was hard to leave the place, even to come home."
They listened with enchantment, and were silent when he stopped.
Somebody called, "How far is it, in days of travel?"
"Martin's guess is about twenty days, with families and big pack loads."
"Are there rivers to cross, dangerous places?"
"The best arrangement would be an advance party, a couple of days ahead, to mark out the easiest route. Coming back we avoided all the rough country we went through going north. The only difficult river crossing is right here, the Songe, that'll have to be done with boats. The others can be forded, till you get to the Serene."
More questions were shouted out; the crowd lost its enraptured quiet and was breaking into a hundred voluble discussions under the red-leaf umbrellas, when Vera came forward again and asked for silence. "One of our neighbors is here and wishes to talk with us," she said, and stood aside to let a man behind her come forward. He wore black, with a broad silver-embossed belt. The six men who had stood near theporch had come up on it with him and moved forward in a semicircle, separating him from the other people on the porch.
"Greetings to you all," the man in black said. His voice was dry, not loud.
"Falco," people murmured to one another. "The Boss Falco."
"I am pleased to present the congratulations of the Government of Victoria to these brave explorers. Their maps and reports will be a most valued addition to the Archives of the State in Victoria City. Plans for a limited migration of farmers and manual workers are being studied by the Council. Planning and control are necessary to ensure the safety and welfare of the community as a whole. As this expedition makes clear, we dwell in one corner, one safe haven, of a great and unknown world. We who have lived here longest, who keep the records of the early years of the Settlement, know that rash schemes of dispersal may threaten our survival, and that wisdom lies in order and strict cooperation. I am pleased to tell you that the Council will receive these brave explorers with the welcome of the City, and present them a suitable reward for their endeavors."
There was a different kind of silence.
Vera spoke; she looked fragile beside the group of bulky men, and her voice sounded light and clear. "We thank the representative of the Council for his courteous invitation."
Falco said, "The Council will expect to receive the explorers, and examine their maps and reports, in three days' time."
Again the pent silence.
"We thank Councillor Falco," Lev said, "and decline his invitation."
An older man tugged at Lev's arm, whispering hard; there was much quick, low talk among the people on the porch, but the crowd before the Meeting House kept silent and motionless.
"We must arrive at decisions on several matters," Vera said to Falco, but loud enough that all could hear, "before we're ready to reply to the invitation of the Council."
"The decisions have been made, Senhora Adelson. They have been made by the Council. Only your obedience is expected." Falco bowed, to her, raised his hand in salutation to the crowd, and left the porch, surrounded by his guards. The people moved wide apart to let them pass.
On the porch, two groups formed: the explorers and other men and women, mostly young, around Vera, and a larger group around a fair, blue-eyed man named Elia. Down among the crowd this pattern was repeated, until it began to look like a ringtree forest: small circles, mostly young, and larger circles, mostly older. All of them argued passionately, yet without anger. When one tall old woman began shaking her red-leaf umbrella at a vehement girl and shouting, "Runaway! You want to run away and leave us to face the Bosses! What you need is a spanking!"--with a whack of the umbrella in demonstration--then very rapidly the people around her seemed to melt away, taking with them the girl who had annoyed her. The old woman was left standing alone, as red as her umbrella,brandishing it sullenly at nothing. Presently, frowning and working her lips, she joined the outskirts of another circle.
The two groups up on the porch had now joined. Elia spoke with quiet intensity: "Direct defiance is violence, Lev, as much as any blow of fist or knife."
"As I refuse violence, I refuse to serve the violent," the young man said.
"If you defy the Council's request, you will cause violence."
"Jailings, beatings maybe; all right. Is it liberty we want, Elia, or mere safety?"
"By defying Falco, in the name of liberty or anything else, you provoke repression. You play into his hands."
"We're in his hands already, aren't we?" Vera said. "What we want is to get out."
"We all agree that it's time, high time, that we talk with the Council--talk firmly, reasonably. But if we begin with defiance, with moral violence, nothing will be achieved, and they'll fall back on force."
"We don't intend defiance," Vera said, "we shall simply hold fast to the truth. But if they begin with force, you know, Elia, even our attempt at reason becomes a resistance."
"Resistance is hopeless, we must talk together! If violence enters in, in act or word, the truth is lost--our life in Shantih, our liberty will be destroyed. Force will rule, as it did on Earth!"
"It didn't rule everybody on Earth, Elia. Only those who consented to serve it."
"Earth cast our fathers out," Lev said. There was abrightness in his face; his voice caught at a harsh, yearning note, like the deep strings of a harp plucked hard. "We're outcasts, the children of outcasts. Didn't the Founder say that the outcast is the free soul, the child of God? Our life here in Shantih is not a free life. In the north, in the new settlement, we will be free."
"What is freedom?" said a beautiful, dark woman, Jewel, who stood beside Elia. "I don't think you come to it by the path of defiance, resistance, refusal. Freedom comes with you if you walk the path of love. To accept all is to be given all."
"We've been given a whole world," Andre said in his subdued voice. "Have we accepted it?"
"Defiance is a trap, violence is a trap, they must be refused--and that's what we're doing," Lev said. "We are going free. The Bosses will try to stop us. They'll use moral force, they may use physical force; force is the weapon of the weak. But if we trust ourselves, our purpose, our strength, if we hold fast, all their power over us will melt away like shadows when the sun comes up!"
"Lev," the dark woman said softly, "Lev, this is the world of shadows."
Copyright © 1978 by Ursula K. Le Guin