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Old Women Hating; by Ursula Le Guin

Told aloud by Thorn of High Porch House in Sinshan.

Where High Porch House now stands in Sinshan, a long time ago there was a house called After the Earthquake House.  It had stood there a long time, too long.  The stone thresholds and the floor tiles were worn hollow.  Doors hung crooked in their frames.  Boards had come loose.  The walls were full of mice and the space under the roof was stuffed with birds' nests and wasps' nests and bat dung.  The house was so old nobody remembered what family built it to start with.  Nobody wanted to repair it or keep it clean.  It was a house like an old, old dog who doesn't care for anybody and nobody cares for it, and it lives dirty and silent, scratching its fleas.  The people in Sinshan then must have been careless, to let that house get so old and dirty; it would have been better to take it down, take it apart and use the good boards and stones, unbuild it and build a new house.  But sometimes people don't do what's better, or what's good.  Things get going along and they are as they are and who's going to change them?  It's the wheel gets turning.  It's hard to be mindful of everything.  And it's hard to interfere in what your neighbors do, too.

Well, there were two households in that old After the Earthquake House: one Red Adobe and one Obsidian.  Each household had a grandmother.  Those two women had lived there all their lives hating each other.  They didn't get on.  They wouldn't speak to each other.  How did it begin?  What did they want?  I don't know.  Nobody who told the story knew.  Hating gets going, it goes round, it gets older and tighter and older and tighter, until it holds a person inside it like a fist holds a stick.  So there they were, the Red Adobe woman on the first floor under the roof, and the Obsidian woman on the second floor over the cellars, hating each other.  The Adobe woman would say, "Smell the stink of that cooking coming up here!  Tell that person to quit stinking the house!"  And her son-in-law would go downstairs, and say that to the Obsidian old woman.  She would say nothing to him, but say to her son-in-law, "What is that noise?  A dog yapping somewhere?  A toilet running?  There are unpleasant noises in this house.  People walking upstairs, stupid people talking and talking.  Tell them to stop making so much noise."

In the Adobe household there were two daughters, and one of them had two daughters, all married, so there were four sons-in-law, and some younger children, a big household, living in all those old, dirty rooms under the roof.  They didn't mend the roof.  When it leaked they made a hole in the floor by the wall and let the water drip down on the people underneath.  The Adobe old woman said, "Water always goes downhill."  Down there the Obsidian grandmother lived with her two daughters; one of them didn't marry, the other had a husband and one daughter.  So they weren't very many people in that household, and they were ungenerous, silent and keeping to themselves, not dancing at the festivals.  Nobody else ever went into their rooms, and people said, "They must hoard, in that household.  They must have things, they must be keeping things in there."

Other people said something like, "What makes you say that?  They never make anything.  There's a couple of sheep that go with the town flock, the cow died, they farm a little land down by Rattlesnake Clearing but they don't grow anything but corn, they don't gather anything but mushrooms, they never make anything to give, their clothes are old, their pots and baskets are old and dirty - what makes you say they have a lot of things?"

People saw an iron pan one of the Obsidian women put into the scrap bin; it was scraped and burned right through in the middle, but they could see she had been using it, frying in it around the hole in it.  But some of them said that that proved the family must be hoarding, if they were so stingy they went on cooking with a worn-out pan.

The family upstairs in the old house never gave anything either except food, but nobody said they were rich.  They kept all the doors open and anybody could see what they had and how dirty it was.  All the sons-in-law hunted, so they had plenty of venison if not much else; and the daughters made cheese.  They were the only people in Sinshan that made much cheese, then.  People that wanted it brought them the milk, and they got some milch goats, and milked their ewes.  They ripened the cheese in the ground floor of the house, which was half underground, good cellarage for cheese or wine - the cellars under High Porch House now are partly those old cellars.  None of them ever farmed, even though they were Red Adobe people.  The men were always over on the hunting side, up on Sinshan Mountain and She Watches and clear over to Fir Mountain.  The old woman didn't like to eat anything but venison.  They were generous with the game, and gave the cheese they made to people who gave them things they needed; but they were people who took things and lost them, broke things and didn't mend them.  They were inconsequent, shiftless, small-minded people.  None of them would be worth telling a story about, except for the hatred between the grandmothers.  That was great: a great hatred, all in one house, inside the walls.

Year after year it went on, and that was why the house was dirty and leaking and full of flies and fleas, that was why the people in it were mean and unforgiving and dull: they were all fuel, fuel for that hatred between the two old women.  Everything they did or said went into the fire of that hatred.  If game was scarce, the Obsidian family were glad because the people upstairs came back without a deer.  If there was a drought, the Red Adobe family were glad because the people downstairs didn't harvest much corn.  If the cheese cae out bitter or dry, the Adobe women said that the Obsidian women had put sand or lye in the crocks in the cellar.  If one of the Obsidian family slipped on the doorstep, they said it was because the people upstairs had dripped deerfat on it.  If the wiring got crazy and the walls split and the balconies and staircases got hanging loose, neither household would see to repairs, saying it was the other household's fault.  Everything that went wrong, the old women would say, "It's her fault, it's her doing!  That one!"

The eldest son-in-law of the Adobe family was going up their stairs, and they were so rotten that he broke right through, and tried to catch himself falling, and fell wrong, and broke his back.  He didn't die straight off, but took a while doing it.  People came from the Doctors Lodge and the Black Adobe Lodge to help him die, and they were singing the Going Westward to the Sunrise songs with him when his wife's mother began talking and shouting: "It was that one!  That woman!  She made the step come loose, she took out the pegs, she did it!"

The Obsidian grandmother sat in her room underneath and rocked her body and listened with her mouth open, laughing.  She said to her family, "Listen to that one, up there.  That's how she sings when somebody's dying.  Let her wait and hear how I sing when she's dying!"

But her son-in-law, who never talked, and always did everything the women of the household told him to do, began saying, "Something bad is going to happen.  I didn't take out the pegs.  I didn't make the step come loose.  Oh, something bad is happening.  I am going to die!"  And he began singing the Going Westward songs out loud, not the songs others sing to the dying person, but the songs the person dying sings.

The old woman was superstitious.  She thought singing those songs would make you die.  She began screaming, "Make him be quiet!  What is he trying to do to us!  Nobody in this household is dying!  Only up there, only up there, let them die up there!"

So the daughters got the man to be quiet.  The people upstairs had been listening, because they had heard the shouting.  You could hear everything in that house.  They had loosened the boards and made holes so they could hear each other and feed their hatred.  So everything was silent for a while.  Then the dying man upstairs began to snore and rattle in his throat.  The people with him began singing the third song.  The grandmother downstairs sat listening.

Her son-in-law was crazy, after that.  He sat inside the house and never went outdoors.  He never worked, but sat in corners picking at his arms and legs, picking at fleabites and scabs.

The Black Adobe people who had been at the singing for the dying man came to talk to both grandmothers, because they had seen and heard that night what kind of hatred those people had for one another.  Before that it had all been shut inside the house, and other people hadn't thought about it.  The Black Adobe people said: "This is no good.  You're hurting yourselves and the rest of us here in town.  If you won't give up hating each other, maybe one family should leave After the Earthquake House."

The Red Adobe grandmother listened to that and said, "There are only five of them down there, and they have things, all kinds of things.  The house is full of mice and creatures that breed in the grain they hoard, the house is full of moths that breed in the clothes they hide.  They have ornaments and wakwa costumes and feathers and iron and copper in boxes under the floorboards.  They never share anything, they never give anything, they have all kinds of things.  Let them build themselves a new house!"

The Obsidian grandmother said, "Let those shiftless breeders go live over on the hunting side, if they like.  This is my house."

So the Black Adobe people had to begin to talk with other people in town about those two households to see if there was something that should be done.  While they were doing that, the elder daughter of the downstairs family feel sick very suddenly.  She went into convulsions and then fell into coma.  Her crazy husband paid no attention, but went on picking at his sores in a corner of the room.  The grandmother sent the sister crying to the Doctors Lodge - "She had been poisoned!  They put poisonous mushrooms with our mushrooms!"

The doctors said it was mushroom poisoning, but they showed the sister that in among the mushrooms she and the dying woman had gathered and dried there were several feituli, and one of those kills, or half of one of those.  But she cried that they had never gathered those, somebody else had put them among their mushrooms.  She kept saying that and paying no attention to her sister, who was dying.  Then the grandmother heaved herself up and stood on the porch, at the foot of the stairs to the balcony above.  She stood there and screamed at the family up there, "You think you can kill my daughter?  You think you can do that?  What makes you think you can do that?  Nobody can kill my daughter!"  Everybody in Sinshan heard that, and saw her standing there, shaking her fists, shaking her arms and screaming.

The Adobe old woman came out on the porch above.  She said, "What's all the noise?  Did I hear that a dog was dying?"

The Obsidian old woman began to scream without words, and started to go up the stairs, but people had gathered, and they stopped her and held her arms and brought her back into her own household.  Doctors Lodge people and Black Adobe people and her granddaughter held her and calmed her until she could be quiet while her daughter died and they sang the songs for her.

Upstairs, the other old woman called out once, "There's a bad smell, some dog is dead somewhere."  But her own daughters and sons-in-law made her be still.

They were fed up.  They were ashamed by all this hatred which all the people in town had seen and heard.

After the cremation, people from the upstairs family came to the Black Adobe Lodge to talk.  They said, "We are sick of this hatred between our mother and that other woman downstairs.  They're old and we can't change them, but we don't want to go on with it.  Tell us what would be good to do, and we'll do as you say."

But while they were talking about it in the lodge on Big Knoll, a child came yelling, "Fire!  Fire in town!"

They all ran back into Sinshan, and there the pumps were pouring water from the big hoe into After the Earthquake House, and flaring flakes and lumps of fire were spinning up where the roof was burning.

After her family had left the house, the Adobe old woman was lone upstairs there, and she had poured oil down the holes in the floors and set it alight to burn the people downstairs.  The smoke got so thick it confused her, and she didn't get out, if she tried to get out.  She was suffocated, up there in her rooms alone.

The Obsidian old woman and the others ran out when they smelled the fire and saw burning oil dripping down their walls inside.  They had to pull the son-in-law out.  The Obsidian old woman was standing outside the house crying and singing the songs for the dying, and people were holding her to keep her from trying to get back inside the burning house.

Once they had brought out the Adobe old woman and knew she was dead, people said, "Let the house go on burning.  Let it burn itself down!"

So they wet down the roofs and walls of the nearby houses; the ground was wet, since it was in the rainy season; and they let the house destroy itself.

People from all the heyimas gave the two households what they needed to start housekeeping again.  The Obsidian family went to the ground floor of Old Red House, and the Adobe family split up, some of them going to live for a while in a hunting camp on Sinshan Mountain, and others to Drum House, where they had cousins of their House.

They said there was nothing left in the ashes of that house worth putting in the scrap bin, not a board nor a bed nor a doorhinge, only ashes and cinders and trash.

After a few seasons, people of the Blue Clay built on the old foundations, extending them a little on the southwest side, and building them higher aboveground; so now there is High Porch House.  They say sometimes you can hear something like old women's voices whispering in the old parts of the cellars; but I live there, and I never have heard them.

re: "...nobody said they were rich."
The Kesh adjective meaning "rich" is weambad, from the word ambad, which as a verb means to give or be generous and as a noun means wealth or generosity.  But the word Thorn used telling the story was wetotop.  That comes from the word top, which as a verb means to have or to keep or to own, and as a noun means possessions, things used; in its doubled form, totop, it means to hoard, treasure, possessions hidden or unused.  And the adjective form wetotop describes a hoarder, a miser.  In such terms, people who don't own much because they keep giving things away are rich, while those who give little and so own much are poor.  To keep the sense clear I had to translate "poor" as "rich" - but the relation of our words miser and misery, miserable, shows that the Kesh view has not always been foreign to us.

from Always Coming Home by Ursula Le Guin

The Valley, home of the people who call themselves the Kesh, exists somewhere in the far future - in the area now known as Northern California.

Always Coming Home weave together the stories, histories, strange and familiar customs, art, architecture, technology, poetry, drama and music of this extraordinary imagined people into a new kind of book.  It is both a novel and an archeology of the future.


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