The first thing I can remember clearly is writing the way into the secret room.
I am so small I have to reach my arm up to make the signs in the right place on the wall of the corridor. The wall is coated with thick grey plaster, cracked and crumbling in places so the stone shows through. It’s almost dark in the corridor. It smells of earth and age, and it’s silent. But I’m not afraid; I’m never afraid there. I reach up and move my writing finger in the motions I know, in the right place, in the air, not quite touching the surface of the plaster. The door opens in the wall, and I go in.
The light in that room is clear and calm, falling from many small skylights of thick glass in the high ceiling. It’s a very long room, with shelves down its wall, and books on the shelves. It’s my room, and I’ve always known it. Ista and Sosta and Gudit don’t. They don’t even know it’s there. They never come to these corridors far in the back of the house. I pass the Waylord’s door to come here, but he’s sick and lame and stays in his rooms. The secret room is my secret, the place where I can be alone, and not scolded and bothered, and not afraid.
The memory isn’t of one time I went there, but many. I remember how big the reading table looked to me then, and how high the bookshelves were. I liked to get under the table and build a kind of wall or shelter with some of the books. I pretended to be a bear cub in its den. I felt safe there. I always put the books back exactly where they belonged on the shelves; that was important. I stayed in the lighter part of the room, near the door that’s not a door. I didn’t like the farther end, where it grows dark and the ceiling comes down lower. In my mind I called that the shadow end, and I almost always stayed away from it. But even my fear of the shadow end was part of my secret, my kingdom of solitude. And it was mine alone, until one day when I was nine.
Sosta had been scolding me for some stupid thing that wasn’t my fault, and when I was rude back to her she called me “sheep hair,” which put me in a fury. I couldn’t hit her because her arms were longer and she could hold me off, so I bit her hand. Then her mother, my bymother Ista, scolded me and cuffed me. Furious, I ran to the back part of the house, to the dark corridor, and opened the door and went into the secret room. I was going to stay there till Ista and Sosta thought I’d run away and been taken as a slave and was gone forever, and then they’d be sorry for scolding unjustly and cuffing and calling me names. I rushed into the secret room all hot and full of tears and rage— and there, in the strange clear light of that place, stood the Waylord with a book in his hands.
He was startled, too. He came at me, fierce, his arm raised as if to strike. I stood like a stone. I could not breathe.
He stopped short. “Memer! How did you come here?”
He looked at the place where the door is when it’s open, but of course nothing was there but the wall.
I still couldn’t breathe or speak.
“I left it open,” he said, without believing what he said.
I shook my head.
Finally I was able to whisper, “I know how.”
His face was shocked and amazed, but after a while it changed, and he said, “Decalo.”
My mother’s name was Decalo Galva.
I want to tell of her, but I can’t remember her. Or I do but the memory won’t go into words. Being held tight, jostling, a good smell in the darkness of the bed, a rough red cloth, a voice which I can’t hear but it’s only just out of hearing. I used to think if I could hold still and listen hard enough, I’d hear her voice.
She was a Galva by blood and by house. She was head housekeeper for Sulter Galva, Waylord of Ansul, an honorable and responsible position. In Ansul there were no serfs or slaves then; we were citizens, householders, free people. My mother Decalo was in charge of all the people who worked in Galvamand. My bymother Ista, the cook, liked to tell us about how big the household used to be, back then, how many people Decalo had to look after. Ista herself had two kitchen assistants every day, and three helpers for the big dinners for visiting notables; there were four housecleaners, and the handyman, and a groom and stableboy for the horses, eight horses in the stable, some to ride and some to drive. There were quite a few relatives and old people living in the house. Ista’s mother lived up over the kitchens, the Waylord’s mother lived in the Master’s rooms upstairs. The Waylord himself was always travelling up and down the Ansul Coast from town to town to meet with the other waylords, sometimes in the saddle, sometimes in a carriage with a retinue. There was a smithy in the west court in those days, and the driver and postboy lived on the top floor of the carriage house, always ready to go out with the Waylord on his rounds. “Oh it was all busy and abustle,” Ista says. “The old days! The good days!”
When I ran through the silent corridors past the ruined rooms, I used to try to imagine those days, the good days. I used to pretend, when I swept the doorways, that I was making ready for guests who’d come through them wearing fine clothes and shoes. I used to go up to the Master’s rooms and imagine how they’d looked clean and warm and furnished. I’d kneel in the windowseat there to look out through the clear, small-paned window over the roofs of the city to the mountain.
The name of my city and all the coast north of it, Ansul, means “Looking at Sul”— the great mountain, last and highest of the five peaks of Manva, the land across the straits. From the seafront and from all the western windows of the city you can see white Sul above the water, and the clouds it gathers round it as if they were its dreams.
I knew the city had been called Ansul the Wise and Beautiful for its university and library, its towers and arcaded courts, its canals and arched bridges and the thousand little marble temples of the street-gods. But the Ansul of my childhood was a broken city of ruins, hunger, and fear. Ansul was a protectorate of Sundraman, but that great nation was busy fighting over its border with Loaman and kept no troops here to defend us. Though rich in goods and farmland, Ansul had long fought no wars. Our well-armed merchant fleet kept pirates from the south from harrying the coast, and since Sundraman enforced an alliance with us long ago, we had had no enemies by land. So when an army of Alds, the people of the deserts of Asudar, invaded us, they swept over the hills of Ansul like wildfire. Their army broke into the city and went through the streets murdering, looting, and raping. My mother Decalo, caught in the street coming from the market, was taken by soldiers and raped. Then the soldiers who had her were attacked by citizens, and in the fighting she managed to get away and get home to Galvamand.
Copyright © 2006 by Ursula K. Le Guin
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