Chapter Excerpt

IMAGINARY COUNTRIES

“We can’t drive to the river on Sunday,” the baron said, “because we’re leaving on Friday.” The two little ones gazed at him across the breakfast table. Zida said, “Marmalade, please,” but Paul, a year older, found in a remote, disused part of his memory a darker dining-room from the windows of which one saw rain falling. “Back to the city?” he asked. His father nodded. And at the nod the sunlit hill outside these windows changed entirely, facing north now instead of south. That day red and yellow ran through the woods like fire, grapes swelled fat on the heavy vines, and the clear, fierce, fenced fields of August stretched themselves out, patient and unboundaried, into the haze of September. Next day Paul knew the moment he woke that it was autumn, and Wednesday. “This is Wednesday,” he told Zida, “tomorrow’s Thursday, and then Friday when we leave.”
“I’m not going to,” she replied with indifference, and went off to the Little Woods to work on her unicorn trap. It was made of an eggcrate and many little bits of cloth, with various kinds of bait. She had been making it ever since they found the tracks, and Paul doubted if she would catch even a squirrel in it. He, aware of time and season, ran full speed to the High Cliff to finish the tunnel there before they had to go back to the city.
Inside the house the baroness’s voice dipped like a swallow down the attic stairs. “O Rosa! Where is the blue trunk then?” And Rosa not answering, she followed her voice, pursuing it and Rosa and the lost trunk down stairs and ever farther hallways to a joyful reunion at the cellar door. Then from his study the baron heard Tomas and the trunk come grunting upward step by step, while Rosa and the baroness began to empty the children’s closets, carrying off little loads of shirts and dresses like delicate, methodical thieves. “What are you doing?” Zida asked sternly, having come back for a coathanger in which the unicorn might entangle his hoof. “Packing,” said the maid. “Not my things,” Zida ordered, and departed. Rosa continued rifling her closet. In his study the baron read on undisturbed except by a sense of regret which rose perhaps from the sound of his wife’s sweet, distant voice, perhaps from the quality of the sunlight falling across his desk from the uncurtained window.
In another room his older son Stanislas put a microscope, a tennis racket, and a box full of rocks with their labels coming unstuck into his suitcase, then gave it up. A notebook in his pocket, he went down the cool red halls and stairs, out the door into the vast and sudden sunlight of the yard. Josef, reading under the Four Elms, said, “Where are you off to? It’s hot.” There was no time for stopping and talking. “Back soon,” Stanislas replied politely and went on, up the road in dust and sunlight, past the High Cliff where his half-brother Paul was digging. He stopped to survey the engineering. Roads metalled with white clay zigzagged over the cliff-face. The Citroen and the Rolls were parked near a bridge spanning an erosion-gully. A tunnel had been pierced and was in process of enlargement. “Good tunnel,” Stanislas said. Radiant and filthy, the engineer replied, “It’ll be ready to drive through this evening, you want to come to the ceremony?” Stanislas nodded, and went on. His road led up a long, high hillslope, but he soon turned from it and, leaping the ditch, entered his kingdom and the kingdom of the trees. Within a few steps all dust and bright light were gone. Leaves overhead and underfoot; an air like green water through which birds swam and the dark trunks rose lifting their burdens, their crowns, towards the other element, the sky. Stanislas went first to the Oak and stretched his arms out, straining to reach a quarter of the way around the trunk. His chest and cheek were pressed against the harsh, scored bark; the smell of it and its shelf-fungi and moss was in his nostrils and the darkness of it in his eyes. It was a bigger thing than he could ever hold. It was very old, and alive, and did not know that he was there. Smiling, he went on quietly, a notebook full of maps in his pocket, among the trees towards yet-uncharted regions of his land.
Josef Brone, who had spent the summer assisting his professor with documentation of the history of the Ten Provinces in the Early Middle Ages, sat uneasily reading in the shade of elms. Country wind blew across the pages, across his lips. He looked up from the Latin chronicle of a battle lost nine hundred years ago to the roofs of the house called Asgard. Square as a box, with a sediment of porches, sheds, and stables, and square to the compass, the house stood in its flat yard; after a while in all directions the fields rose up slowly, turning into hills, and behind them were higher hills, and behind them sky. It was like a white box in a blue and yellow bowl, and Josef, fresh from college and intent upon the Jesuit seminary he would enter in the fall, ready to read documents and make abstracts and copy references, had been embarrassed to find that the baron’s family called the place after the home of the northern gods. But this no longer troubled him. So much had happened here that he had not expected, and so little seemed to have been finished. The history was years from completion. In three months he had never found out where Stanislas went, alone, up the road. They were leaving on Friday. Now or never. He got up and followed the boy. The road passed a ten-foot bank, halfway up which clung the little boy Paul, digging in the dirt with his fingers, making a noise in his throat rrrm, rrrrm. A couple of toy cars lay at the foot of the bank. Josef followed the road on up the hill and presently began expecting to reach the top, from which he would see where Stanislas had gone. A farm came into sight and went out of sight, the road climbed, a lark went up singing as if very near the sun; but there was no top. The only way to go downhill on this road was to turn around. He did so. As he neared the woods above Asgard a boy leapt out onto the road, quick as a hawk’s shadow. Josef called his name, and they met in the white glare of dust. “Where have you been?” asked Josef, sweating.—“In the Great Woods,” Stanislas answered, “that grove there.” Behind him the trees gathered thick and dark. “Is it cool in there?” Josef asked wistfully. “What do you do in there?”—“Oh, I map trails. Just for the fun of it. It’s bigger than it looks.” Stanislas hesitated, then added, “You haven’t been in it? You might like to see the Oak.” Josef followed him over the ditch and through the close green air to the Oak. It was the biggest tree he had ever seen; he had not seen very many. “I suppose it’s very old,” he said, looking up puzzled at the reach of branches, galaxy after galaxy of green leaves without end. “Oh, a century or two or three or six,” said the boy, “see if you can reach around it!” Josef spread out his arms and strained, trying vainly to keep his cheek off the rough bark. “It takes four men to reach around it,” Stanislas said. “I call it Yggdrasil. You know. Only of course Yggdrasil was an ash, not an oak. Want to see Loki’s Grove?” The road and the hot white sunlight were gone entirely. The young man followed his guide farther into the maze and game of names which was also a real forest: trees, still air, earth. Under tall grey alders above a dry streambed they discussed the tale of the death of Baldur, and Stanislas pointed out to Josef the dark clots, high in the boughs of lesser oaks, of mistletoe. They left the woods and went down the road towards Asgard. Josef walked along stiffly in the dark suit he had bought for his last year at the University, in his pocket a book in a dead language. Sweat ran down his face, he felt very happy. Though he had no maps and was rather late arriving, at least he had walked once through the forest. They passed Paul still burrowing, ignoring the clang of the iron triangle down at the house, which signalled meals, fires, lost children, and other noteworthy events. “Come on, lunch!” Stanislas ordered. Paul slid down the bank and they proceeded, seven, fourteen and twenty-one, sedately to the house.
That afternoon Josef helped the professor pack books, two trunks full of books, a small library of medieval history. Josef liked to read books, not pack them. The professor had asked him, not Tomas, “Lend me a hand with the books, will you?” It was not the kind of work he had expected to do here. He sorted and lifted and stowed away load after load of resentment in insatiable iron trunks, while the professor worked with energy and interest, swaddling incunabula like babies, handling each volume with affection and despatch. Kneeling with keys he said, “Thanks, Josef! That’s that,” and lowering the brass catchbars locked away their summer’s work, done with, that’s that. Josef had done so much here that he had not expected to do, and now nothing was left to do. Disconsolate, he wandered back to the shade of the elms; but the professor’s wife, with whom he had not expected to fall in love, was sitting there. “I stole your chair,” she said amiably, “sit on the grass.” It was more dirt than grass, but they called it grass, and he obeyed. “Rosa and I are worn out,” she said, “and I can’t bear to think of tomorrow. It’s the worst, the next-to-last day—linens and silver and turning dishes upside down and putting out mousetraps and there’s always a doll lost and found after everybody’s searched for hours under a pile of laundry—and then sweeping the house and locking it all up. And I hate every bit of it, I hate to close this house.” Her voice was light and plaintive as a bird’s calling in the woods, careless whether anybody heard its plaintiveness, careless of its plaintiveness. “I hope you’ve liked it here,” she said.
“Very much, baroness.”
“I hope so. I know Severin has worked you very hard. And we’re so disorganised. We and the children and the visitors, we always seem to scatter so, and only meet in passing. . . . I hope it hasn’t been distracting.” It was true; all summer in tides and cycles the house had been full or half full of visitors, friends of the children, friends of the baroness, friends, colleagues and neighbors of the baron, duck-hunters who slept in the disused stable since the spare bedrooms were full of Polish medieval historians, ladies with broods of children the smallest of whom fell inevitably into the pond about this time of the afternoon. No wonder it was so still, so autumnal now: the rooms vacant, the pond smooth, the hills empty of dispersing laughter.
“I have enjoyed knowing the children,” Josef said, “particularly Stanislas.” Then he went red as a beet, for Stanislas alone was not her child. She smiled and said with timidity, “Stanislas is very nice. And fourteen—fourteen is such a fearful age, when you find out so fast what you’re capable of being, but also what a toll the world expects. . . . He handles it very gracefully. Paul and Zida now, when they get that age they’ll lump through it and be tiresome. But Stanislas learned loss so young.


Excerpted from The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories Volume One: Where on Earth by Ursula K. Le Guin
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