Fleeing from the monotony of his life, Hugh Rogers finds his way to "the beginning place"--a gateway to Tembreabrezi, an idyllic, unchanging world of eternal twilight. Irena Pannis was thirteen when she first found the beginning place. Now, seven years later, she has grown to know and love the gentle inhabitants of Tembreabrezi, or Mountaintown, and she sees Hugh as a trespasser. But then a monstrous shadow threatens to destroy Mountaintown, and Hugh and Irena join forces to seek it out. Along the way, they begin to fall in love. Are they on their way to a new beginning...or a fateful end?
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Ursula K. Le Guin is the author of more than three dozen books for children and adults. She was awarded a Newbery Honor for the second volume of the Earthsea Cycle, The Tombs of Atuan, and among her many other distinctions are the Margaret A. Edwards Award, a National Book Award, and five Nebula Awards. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
1 "Checker on Seven!" and back between the checkstands unloading the wire carts, apples three for eighty-nine, pineapple chunks on special, half gallon of two percent, seventy-five, four, and one is five, thank you, from ten to six six days a week; and he was good at it. The manager, a man made of iron filings and bile, complimented him on his efficiency. The other checkers, older, married, talked baseball, football, mortgages, orthodontists. They called him Rodge, except Donna, who called him Buck. Customers at rush times were hands giving money, taking money. At slow times old men and women liked to talk, it didn't matter much what you answered, they didn't listen. Efficiency got him through the job daily but not beyond it. Eight hours a day of chicken noodle two for sixty-nine, dog chow on special, half pint of Derry Wip, ninety-five, one, and five is forty. He walked back to Oak Valley Road and had dinnerwith his mother and watched some television and went to bed. Sometimes he wondered what he would be doing if Sam's Thrift-E-Mart had been on the other side of the freeway, for there was no pedestrian crossing for four blocks on one side and six on the other, and he never would have got to the place. But he had driven there to stock up the refrigerator the day after they moved in, and saw the sign CHECKER WANTED, which had been up for one half hour. If he hadn't fallen into the job he might have gone ahead and bought a car so that he could work downtown, as he had planned. But it wouldn't have been much of a car, whereas now he was saving enough to amount to something when the time came. He would rather live in town and get along without a car of his own but his mother was afraid of inner cities. He looked at cars as he walked home and considered what kind he might get when the time came. He was not very interested in cars, but since he had given up the idea of school he would have to spend the money on something, finally, and his mind always fell into the same habit, as he walked home; he was tired, and all day he had handled things for sale and the money that bought them, until his mind held nothing else because his hands never held anything else, and yet kept none of it. In early spring when they first moved here the sky above the roofs had flared cold green and gold as he walked home. Now in summer the treeless streets were still bright and hot at seven. Planes gaining altitude from the airport ten miles south cut the thick, glaring sky, dragging their sound andshadow; broken swings of painted steel play-gyms screeched beside the driveways. The development was named Kensington Heights. To get to Oak Valley Road he crossed Loma Linda Drive, Raleigh Drive, Pine View Place, turned onto Kensington Avenue, crossed Chelsea Oaks Road. There were no heights, no valleys, no Raleighs, no oaks. On Oak Valley Road the houses were two-story six-unit apartment houses painted brown and white. Between the carports were patches of lawn with edgings of crushed white rock planted with juniper. Gum wrappers, soft-drink cans, plastic lids, the indestructible shells and skeletons of the perishables he handled at the counters of the grocery, lay among the white rocks and the dark plants. On Raleigh Drive and Pine View Place the houses were duplexes and on Loma Linda Drive they were separate dwellings, each with its own driveway, carport, lawn, white rocks, juniper. The sidewalks were even, the streets level, the land flat. The old city, downtown, was built on hills above a river, but all its eastern and northern suburbs were flat. The only view he had seen out here had been on the day they drove in from the east with the U-Haul. Just before the city limits sign there was some kind of viaduct the freeway went over, and you looked down over fields. Beyond them the city in a golden haze. Fields, meadows in that soft evening light, and the shadows of trees. Then a paint factory with its many-colored sign facing the freeway, and the housing developments began. One evening after work, a hot evening, he crossed the wide parking lot of Sam's Thrift-E-Mart and went up theexit ramp onto the narrow sidewalk rim of the freeway to see if he could walk back, walk out into the country, the fields he had seen, but there was no way. Rubbish of paper and metal and plastic underfoot, the air lashed and staggering with suction winds and the ground shuddering as each truck approached and passed, eardrums battered by noise and nothing to breathe but burnt rubber and diesel fumes. He gave it up after half an hour and tried to get off the freeway, but the suburban streets were divided from the freeway embankment by chainlink fence. He had to go clear back and across the Thrift-E-Mart parking lot to get to Kensington Avenue. The defeat left him shaky and angry, as if he had been assaulted. He walked home squinting in the hot level sunlight. His mother's car wasn't in the carport. The telephone was ringing as he let himself in. "There you are! I've been calling and calling. Where were you? I called twice already before this call. I'll be here until about ten. At Durbina's. There's a turkey dinner in the freezer. Don't use the Oriental Menu dinners, they're for Wednesday. There's a Mixon's Turkey Dinner." $1.29, his head rang it up, thank you. "I'm going to miss the beginning of that movie on Channel Six, you watch it for me till I get home." "O.K." "Bye bye then." "Bye." "Hugh?" "Yes." "What kept you so late?" "Walked home a different way." "You sound so cross." "I don't know." "Take some aspirin. And a cold shower. It's so hot. That's what I'd like. But I won't be late. Take care now. You're not going out, are you?" "No." She hesitated, said nothing, but did not hang up the phone. He said, "Bye," and hung up, and stood beside the telephone stand. He felt heavy, a heavy animal, a thick, wrinkled creature with its lower lip hanging open and feet like truck tires. Why are you fifteen minutes late why are you cross take care don't eat the frozen Oriental Menu don't go out. All right. Take care take care. He went and put the Mixon's Turkey Dinner into the oven although he had not preheated the oven as the directions said to do, and set the timer. He was hungry. He was always hungry. He was never exactly hungry, but always wanting to eat. There was a bag of peanuts in the pantry cupboard; he took the bag into the living room and turned on the television set and sat down in the armchair. The chair shook and creaked under his weight. He got up again suddenly, dropping the bag of peanuts he had just opened. It was too much, the elephant feeding itself peanuts. He could feel his mouth hanging open, because he could not seem to get air into his lungs. His throat was closed off by something in it trying to get out. He stood there beside the armchair, his body trembling in a jerky way, and the thing inhis throat came out in words. "I can't, I can't," it said loudly. Very frightened, in panic, he made for the front door, wrenched it open, got out of the house before the thing could go on talking. The hot, late sunlight glared on white rocks, carports, cars, walls, swings, television aerials. He stood there trembling, his jaw working: the thing was trying to force his jaw open and speak again. He broke and ran. Right down Oak Valley Road, left onto Pine View Place, right again, he did not know, he could not read the signs. He did not run often or easily. His feet hit the ground hard, in heavy shocks. Cars, carports, houses blurred to a bright pounding blindness which, as he ran on, reddened and darkened. Words behind his eyes said You are running out of daylight. Air came acid into his throat and lungs, burning, his breath made the noise of tearing paper. The darkness thickened like blood. The jolt of his gait grew harder yet, he was running down, downhill. He tried to hold back, to slow down, feeling the world slide and crumble under his feet, a multiple lithe touch brush across his face. He saw or smelled leaves, dark leaves, branches, dirt, earth, leafmold, and through the hammer of his heart and breath heard a loud continual music. He took a few shaky, shuffling steps, went forward onto hands and knees, and then down, belly down full length on earth and rock at the edge of running water.
When at last he sat up he did not feel that he had been asleep but still it was like waking, like waking from deep sleep in quietness, when the self belongs wholly to the self and nothing can move it, until one wakens further. At the root of the quietness was the music of the water. Under his hand sand slid over rock. As he sat up he felt the air come easily into his lungs, a cool air smelling of earth and rotten leaves and growing leaves, all the different kinds of weeds and grass and bushes and trees, the cold scent of water, the dark scent of dirt, a sweet tang that was familiar though he could not name it, all the odors mixed and yet distinct like the threads in a piece of cloth, proving the olfactory part of the brain to be alive and immense, with room though no name for every scent, aroma, perfume, and stink that made up this vast, dark, profoundly strange and familiar smell of a stream bank in late evening in summer in the country. For he was in the country. He had no idea how far he had run, having no clear idea of how long a mile was, but he knew he had run clear out of streets, out of houses, off the edge of the paved world, onto dirt. Dark, slightly damp, uneven, complex again, complex beyond belief--moving one finger he touched grains of sand and soil, decayed leaves, pebbles, a larger rock half buried, roots. He had lain with his face against that dirt, on it, in it. His head swam a little. He drew a long breath, and pressed his open hands against the earth. It was not dark yet. His eyes had grown accustomed, andhe could see clearly, though the darker colors and all shadowed places were near the verge of night. The sky between the black, distinct branches overhead was colorless and without variation of brightness to show where the sun had set. There were no stars yet. The stream, twenty or thirty feet wide and full of boulders, was like a livelier piece of the sky, flashing and glimmering around its rocks. The open, sandy banks on both sides were light; only downstream where the trees grew thicker did the dusk gather heavy, blurring details. He rubbed sand and dead leaf and spiderweb off his face and hair, feeling the light sting of a branch-cut under his eye. He leaned forward on his elbow, intent, and touched the water of the stream with the fingers of his left hand: very lightly at first, his hand flat, as if touching the skin of an animal; then he put his hand into the water and felt the musculature of the currents press against his palm. Presently he leaned forward farther, bent his head down, and with both hands in the shallows at the sand's edge, drank. The water was cold and tasted of the sky. Hugh crouched there on the muddy sand, his head still bowed, with the taste that is no taste on his lips and in his mouth. He straightened his back slowly then until he was kneeling with head erect, his hands on his knees, motionless. What his mind had no words for his body understood entirely and with ease, and praised. When that intensity which he understood as prayer lessened, ebbed, and resolved again into alert and manifoldpleasure, he sat back on his heels, looking about him more keenly and methodically than at first. Where north was, no telling, beneath the even, colorless sky; but he was certain that the suburbs, the freeway, the city all were directly behind him. The path he had been on came out there, between a big pine with reddish bark and a mass of high, large-leaved shrubs. Behind them the path went up steep and was lost to sight in the thick dusk under the trees. The stream ran directly across the axis of that path, from right to left. He could see for a long way upstream along the farther bank as it wound among trees and boulders and finally began to shelve higher above the water. Downstream the woods dropped away in increasing darkness broken by the slipping glimmer of the stream. Above the shore on both sides of the water, close by, the banks rose and then leveled into a clearing free of trees, a glade, almost a little meadow, grassy and much interrupted by bushes and shrubs. The familiar smell he could not put a name to had grown stronger, his hand smelled of it--mint, that was it. The patch of weeds at the water's edge where he had put his hands down must be wild mint. He picked off a leaf and smelled it, then bit it, expecting it to be sweet like mint candy. It was pungent, slightly hairy, earthy, cold. This is a good place, Hugh thought. And I got here. I finally got somewhere. I made it. Behind his back the dinner in the oven, timer set, television gabbling to an empty room. The front door unlocked. Maybe not even shut. How long? Mother coming home at ten. Where were you, Hugh? Out for a walk But you weren't home when I got home you know how I Yes it got later than I thought I'm sorry But you weren't home-- He was on his feet already. But the mint leaf was in his mouth, his hands were wet, his shirt and jeans were a mess of leaves and muddy sand, and his heart was not troubled. I found the place, so I can come back to it, he said to himself. He stood a minute longer listening to the water on the stones and watching the stillness of the branches against the evening sky; then set off back the way he had come, up the path between the high bushes and the pine. The way was steep and dark at first, then leveled out among sparse woods. It was easy to follow, though the thorny arms of blackberry creepers tripped him up a couple of times in the fast-increasing dusk. An old ditch, grass-overgrown, not much more than a dip or wrinkle in the ground, was the boundary of the wood; across it he faced open fields. Clear across them in the distance was the queer shifting passing flicker of carlights on the freeway. There were stationary lights to the right. He headed towards them, across the fields of dry grass and hard-ridged dirt, coming at last to a rise or bank at the top of which ran a gravel road. There was a big building, floodlit, off to the left near the freeway; down the road the other direction was what looked like a couple of farmhouses. One of them also had a light rigged in the front yard, and he headed for that, feeling certain that was how he should go: down this road between the farmhouses. Past their autograveyards and barking dogs there was a dark stretch of trees in rows, and then the first streetlight, the end of Chelsea Gardens Place, leading to Chelsea Gardens Avenue, and on into the heart of a housing development. He followed a memory unavailable to consciousness of how he had come when he was running, and street by street unerringly brought himself back to Kensington Heights, onto Pine View Place, onto Oak Valley Road, and to the front door of 140671/2-C Oak Valley Road: which was shut. The television set was vibrating with canned laughter. He turned it off, then heard the kitchen timer buzzing and hurried to turn it off. The kitchen clock said five to nine. The turkey dinner was withered in its little aluminum coffin. He tried to eat it but it was stone. He drank a quart of milk and ate four slices of bread and butter, a pint of blueberry yogurt, and two apples; he got the bag of peanuts from the living room floor and shelled and ate them, sitting at the dinette table in the kitchen, thinking. It had been a long walk home. He had not looked at his watch, but it must have taken pretty near an hour. And sur...
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