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by Ursula K. Le Guin

Hardcover, 279 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $24 |


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Book Summary

In The Aeneid, Vergil's hero fights to claim the king's daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to found an empire. Lavinia herself never speaks a word in the poem. Now, Ursula K. Le Guin gives Lavinia a voice in a novel that takes the reader to the half-wild world of ancient Italy, when Rome was a muddy village near seven hills.—From

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Lavinia



Copyright © 2008 Ursula K. Le Guin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-15-101424-8

Chapter One

I went to the salt beds by the mouth of the river, in the May of my nineteenth year, to get salt for the sacred meal. Tita and Maruna came with me, and my father sent an old house slave and a boy with a donkey to carry the salt home. It's only a few miles up the coast, but we made an overnight picnic of it, loading the poor little donkey with food, taking all day to get there, setting up camp on a grassy dune above the beaches of the river and the sea. The five of us had supper round the fire, and told stories and sang songs while the sun set in the sea and the May dusk turned blue and bluer. Then we slept under the seawind.

I woke at the first beginning of light. The others were sound asleep. The birds were just beginning their dawn chorus. I got up and went down to the mouth of the river. I dipped up a little water and let it fall back as offering before I drank, saying the river's name, Tiber, Father Tiber, and his old, secret names as well, Albu, Rumon. Then I drank, liking the half-salt taste of the water. The sky was light enough now that I could see the long, stiff waves at the bar where the current met the incoming tide.

Out beyond that, on the dim sea I saw ships-a line of great, black ships, coming up from the south and wheeling and heading in to the river mouth. On each side of each ship a long rank of oars lifted and beat like the beat of wings in the twilight.

One after another the ships breasted the waves at the bar, rising and plunging, one after another they came straight on. Their long, arched, triple beaks were bronze. I crouched by the waterside in the salty mud. The first ship entered the river and came past me, dark above me, moving steadily to the heavy soft beat of the oars on the water. The faces of the oarsmen were shadowed but a man stood up against the sky on the high stern of the ship, gazing ahead.

His face is stern yet unguarded; he is looking ahead into the darkness, praying. I know who he is.

By the time the last of the ships passed by me with that soft, labored beat and rush of oars and vanished into the forest that grows thick on both banks, the birds were singing aloud everywhere and the sky was bright above the eastern hills. I climbed back up to our camp. No one was awake; the ships had passed them in their sleep. I said nothing to them of what I had seen. We went down to the salt pans and dug up enough of the muddy grey stuff to make salt for the year's use, loaded it in the donkey's baskets, and set off home. I did not let them linger, and they complained and dawdled a little, but we were home well before noon.

I went to the king and said, "A great fleet of warships went up the river at dawn, father." He looked at me; his face was sad. "So soon," was all he said.

Chapter Two

I know who I was, I can tell you who I may have been, but I am, now, only in this line of words I write. I'm not sure of the nature of my existence, and wonder to find myself writing. I speak Latin, of course, but did I ever learn to write it? That seems unlikely. No doubt someone with my name, Lavinia, did exist, but she may have been so different from my own idea of myself, or my poet's idea of me, that it only confuses me to think about her. As far as I know, it was my poet who gave me any reality at all. Before he wrote, I was the mistiest of figures, scarcely more than a name in a genealogy. It was he who brought me to life, to myself, and so made me able to remember my life and myself, which I do, vividly, with all kinds of emotions, emotions I feel strongly as I write, perhaps because the events I remember only come to exist as I write them, or as he wrote them.

But he did not write them. He slighted my life, in his poem. He scanted me, because he only came to know who I was when he was dying. He's not to blame. It was too late for him to make amends, rethink, complete the half lines, perfect the poem he thought imperfect. He grieved for that, I know; he grieved for me. Perhaps where he is now, down there across the dark rivers, somebody will tell him that Lavinia grieves for him.

I won't die. Of that I am all but certain. My life is too contingent to lead to anything so absolute as death. I have not enough real mortality. No doubt I will eventually fade away and be lost in oblivion, as I would have done long ago if the poet hadn't summoned me into existence. Perhaps I will become a false dream clinging like a bat to the underside of the leaves of the tree at the gate of the underworld, or an owl flitting in the dark oaks of Albunea. But I won't have to tear myself from life and go down into the dark, as he did, poor man, first in his imagination, and then as his own ghost. We each have to endure our own afterlife, he said to me once, or that is one way to understand what he said. But that dim loitering about, down in the underworld, waiting to be forgotten or reborn-that isn't true being, not even half true as my being is as I write and you read it, and nowhere near as true as in his words, the splendid, vivid words I've lived in for centuries.

And yet my part of them, the life he gave me in his poem, is so dull, except for the one moment when my hair catches fire-so colorless, except when my maiden cheeks blush like ivory stained with crimson dye-so conventional, I can't bear it any longer. If I must go on existing century after century, then once at least I must break out and speak. He didn't let me say a word. I have to take the word from him. He gave me a long life but a small one. I need room, I need air. My soul reaches out into the old forests of my Italy, up to the sunlit hills, up to the winds of the swan and the truth-speaking crow. My mother was mad, but I was not. My father was old, but I was young. Like Spartan Helen, I caused a war. She caused hers by letting men who wanted her take her. I caused mine because I wouldn't be given, wouldn't be taken, but chose my man and my fate. The man was famous, the fate obscure; not a bad balance.

All the same, sometimes I believe I must be long dead, and am telling this story in some part of the underworld that we didn't know about-a deceiving place where we think we're alive, where we think we're growing old and remembering what happened when we were young, when the bees swarmed and my hair caught fire, when the Trojans came. After all, how can it be that we can all talk to one another? I remember the foreigners from the other side of the world, sailing up the Tiber into a country they knew nothing of: their envoy came to my father's house, explained that he was a Trojan, and made polite speeches in fluent Latin. Now how could that be? Do we all know all the languages? That can be true only of the dead, whose land lies under all the other lands. How is it that you understand me, who lived twenty-five or thirty centuries ago? Do you know Latin?

But then I think no, it has nothing to do with being dead, it's not death that allows us to understand one another, but poetry.

IF YOU'D MET ME WHEN I WAS A GIRL AT HOME YOU MIGHT well have thought that my poet's faint portrait of me, sketched as if with a brass pin on a wax tablet, was quite sufficient: a girl, a king's daughter, a marriageable virgin, chaste, silent, obedient, ready to a man's will as a field in spring is ready for the plow.

I've never plowed, but I've watched our farmers at it all my life: the white ox trudging forward in the yoke, the man gripping the long wood handles that buck and rear as he tries to force the plowshare through the soil that looks so meek and ready and is so tough, so shut. He strains with all his weight and muscle to make a scratch deep enough to hold the barley seed. He labors till he's gasping and shaking with exhaustion and wants only to lie down in the furrow and sleep on his hard mother's breast among the stones. I never had to plow, but I had a hard mother too. Earth will take the plowman in her arms at last and let him sleep deeper than the barley seed, but my mother had no embrace for me.

I was silent and meek because if I spoke up, if I showed my will, she might remember that I was not my brothers, and I'd suffer for it. I was six when they died, little Latinus and baby Laurens. They'd been my dears, my dolls. I played with them and adored them. My mother Amata watched over us smiling as the spindle dropped and rose in her fingers. She didn't leave us with our nurse Vestina and the other women as a queen might do, but stayed with us all day long, for love. Often she sang to us as we played. Sometimes she stopped spinning and leapt up, took my hands and Latinus' hands and danced with us, and we all laughed together. "My warriors" she called the boys, and I thought she was calling me a warrior too, because she was so happy when she called them warriors, and her happiness was ours.

We fell ill: first the baby, then Latinus with his round face and big ears and clear eyes, then I. I remember the strange dreams of fever. My grandfather the woodpecker flew to me and pecked my head and I cried out with the pain. In a month or so I got better, got well again; but the boys' fever would fall and then return, fall and return. They grew thin, they wasted away. They would seem to be on the mend, Laurens would nurse eagerly at my mother's breast, Latinus would creep out of bed to play with me. Then the fever would come back and seize them. One afternoon Latinus went into convulsions, the fever was a dog that shakes a rat to death, he was shaken to death, the crown prince, the hope of Latium, my playmate, my dear. That night the thin little baby brother slept easily, his fever was down; next morning early he died in my arms with a gasp and a shiver, like a kitten. And my mother went mad with grief.

My father would never understand that she was mad.

He grieved bitterly for his sons. He was a man of warm feeling, and the boys had been, as a man sees it, his posterity. He wept for them, aloud at first, then for a long time in silence, for years. But he had the relief of his duties as king, and he had the rites to perform, the consolation of returning ritual, the reassurance of the ancient family spirits of his house. And I was solace to him, too, for I performed the rites with him, as a king's daughter does; and also he loved me dearly, his first-born, late-born child. For he was much older than my mother.

She was eighteen when they married, he was forty. She was a princess of the Rutuli of Ardea, he was king of all Latium. She was beautiful, passionate and young; he, a man in his prime, handsome and strong, a victorious warrior who loved peace. It was a match that might have turned out very well.

He didn't blame her for the boys' deaths. He didn't blame me for not having died. He took his loss and set what was left of his heart's hope on me. He went on, greyer and grimmer every year, but never unkind, and never weak, except in this: he let my mother do as she would, looked away when she acted wilfully, was silent when she spoke wildly.

Her awful grief met no human answer. She was left with a husband who couldn't hear or speak to her, a six-year-old weeping daughter, and a lot of miserable, frightened women who were afraid, as servants and slaves must be afraid, that they might be punished for the children's death.

For him she had only contempt; for me, rage.

I can remember each separate time I touched my mother's hand or body, or she touched mine, since my brothers died. She never slept again in the bed where she and my father conceived us.

After many days when she never came out of her room, she reappeared, seeming little changed, still splendid, with her shining black hair, her cream-white face, her proud bearing. Her manner in company had always been somewhat distant, rather lofty; she played the queen among commoners, and I used to marvel at how different she was with the men who thronged the king's house than she was with us children, when she sat spinning and singing and laughed and danced with us. With the house people her manner had been imperious, wilful, hot-tempered, but they loved her, for there was no meanness in her. Now she was mostly cold to them, cold to us, calm. But when I spoke, or my father spoke, often I saw the crimp of loathing in her face, the desolate, scornful fury, before she looked away.

She wore the boys' bullas round her neck, the little amulet bags with a tiny clay phallus in them that boys wear for good luck and protection. She kept the bullas in their gold capsules hidden under her clothes. She never took them off.

The anger that she hid in company broke out often in the women's side of the house as fierce irritation with me. The pet name many people called me, "little queen," particularly annoyed her, and they soon stopped saying it. She did not often speak to me, but if I annoyed her she would turn on me suddenly and tell me in a hard, flat voice that I was a fool, ugly, stupidly timid. "You're afraid of me. I hate cowards," she would say. Sometimes my presence drove her into actual frenzy. She would strike me or shake me till my head snapped back and forth. Once the fury drove her to tear at my face with her nails. Vestina pulled me away from her, got her to her room and quieted her, and hurried back to wash the long, bleeding rips down my cheeks. I was too stunned to cry, but Vestina wept over me as she put salve on the wounds. "They won't scar," she said tearfully, "I'm sure they won't scar."

My mother's voice came calmly from where she was lying in her bedroom: "That's good."

Vestina told me to tell people that the cat had scratched me. When my father saw my face and demanded to know what had happened, I said, "Silvia's old cat scratched me. I was holding her too tight and a hound came by and she was frightened. It wasn't her fault." I came to half believe the story, as children will, and decorated it with details and circumstances, such as that I was quite alone when it happened, in the oak grove just outside Tyrrhus' farmstead, and ran all the way home. I repeated that Silvia was not to blame, nor was the cat. I didn't want to get either of them in trouble. Kings are quick to punish, it relieves their anxiety. Silvia was my dearest friend and playmate, and the old farm cat had a litter of suckling kittens that would die without her. So it had to be my fault alone that my face was scratched. And Vestina was right: her comfrey salve was good; the long red furrows scabbed, healed, and left no scar but one faint silvery track down my left cheekbone under the eye. A day comes when Aeneas traces the scar with his finger and asks me what it is. "A cat scratched me," I say. "I was holding her, and a dog frightened her."

I KNOW THAT THERE WILL BE FAR GREATER KINGS OF FAR greater kingdoms than Latinus of Latium, my father. Upriver at Seven Hills there used to be two little fortified places with dirt walls, Janiculum and Saturnia; then some Greek settlers came, rebuilt on the hillside, and called their fort and town Pallanteum. My poet tried to describe to me that place as he knew it when when he was alive, or will know it when he lives, I should say, for although he was dying when he came to me, and has been dead a long time now, he hasn't yet been born. He is among those who wait on the far side of the forgetful river. He hasn't forgotten me yet, but he will, when at last he comes to be born, swimming across that milky water. When he first imagines me he won't know that he is yet to meet me in the forest of Albunea. Anyhow, he told me that in time to come, where that village is now, the Seven Hills and the valleys among the hills and all the riverbanks will be covered for miles with an unimaginable city. There will be temples of marble splendid with gold on the hilltops, wide arched gates, innumerable figures carved of marble and bronze; more people will pass through the Forum of that city in a single day, he said, than I will see in all the towns and farmsteads, on all the roads, in all the festivals and battlefields of Latium, in all my life. The king of that city will be the great ruler of the world, so great that he will despise the name of king and be known only as the one made great with holy power, the august. All the peoples of all the lands will bow to him and bring tribute. I believe this, knowing that my poet always speaks the truth, if not always the whole truth. Not even a poet can speak the whole truth.