The Lathe of Heaven

Ursula K. Le Guin

An excerpt from Chapter 10

Il descend, réveillé, l’autre côté du rêve

— Hugo, Contemplations

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It was only three o’clock, and he should have gone back to his office in the Parks Department and finished up the plans for southeast suburban play areas; but he didn’t. He gave it one thought and dismissed it. Although his memory assured him that he had held that position for five years now, he disbelieved his memory; the job had no reality to him. It was not work he had to do. It was not his job.

He was aware that in thus relegating to irreality a major portion of the only reality, the only existence, that he in fact did have, he was running exactly the same risk the insane mind runs: the loss of the sense of free will. He knew that in so far as one denies what is, one is possessed by what is not, the compulsions, the fantasies, the terrors that flock to fill the void. But the void was there. This life lacked realness; it was hollow; the dream, creating where there was no necessity to create, had worn thin and sleazy. If this was being, perhaps the void was better. He would accept the monsters and the necessities beyond reason. He would go home, and take no drugs, but sleep, and dream what dreams might come.

He got off the funicular downtown, but instead of taking the trolley he set out walking toward his own district; he had always liked to walk.

Along past Lovejoy Park a piece of the old freeway was still standing, a huge ramp, probably dating from the last frenetic convulsions of highway-mania in the seventies, it must have led up to the Marquam Bridge, once, but now ended abruptly in mid-air thirty feet above Front Avenue. It had not been destroyed when the city was cleaned up and rebuilt after the Plague Years, perhaps because it was so large, so useless, and so ugly as to be, to the American eye, invisible. There it stood, and a few bushes had taken root up on the roadway, while underneath it a huddle of buildings had grown up, like swallows’ nests in a cliff. In this rather dowdy and noncommittal bit of the city there were still small shops, independent markets, unappetizing little restaurants, and so on, struggling along despite the stringencies of total Consumer Product Equity-Rationing and the overwhelming competition of the great WPC Marts and Outlets, through which 90 per cent of world trade was now channeled.

One of those shops under the ramp was a secondhand store; the sign above the windows said ANTIQUES and a poorly lettered, peeling sign painted on the glass said JUNQUE. There was some squat handmade pottery in one window, an old rocker with a motheaten paisley shawl draped over it in the other, and, scattered around these main displays, all kinds of cultural litter: a horseshoe, a hand-wound clock, something enigmatic from a dairy, a framed photograph of President Eisenhower, a slightly chipped glass globe containing three Ecuadorian coins, a plastic toilet-seat cover decorated with baby crabs and seaweed, a well-thumbed rosary, and a stack of old hi-fi 45 rpm records, marked “Gd Cond,” but obviously scratched. Just the sort of place, Orr thought, where Heather’s mother might have worked for a while. Moved by the impulse, he went in.

It was cool and rather dark inside. A leg of the ramp formed one wall, a high blank dark expanse of concrete, like the wall of an undersea cave. From the receding prospect of shadows, bulky furniture, decrepit acres of Action Paintings and fake-antique spinning wheels now becoming genuinely antique though still useless, from these tenebrous reaches of no-man’s-things, a huge form emerged, seeming to float forward slowly, silent and reptilian: The proprietor was an Alien.

It raised crooked left elbow and said, “Good day. Do you wish an object?”

“Thanks. I was just looking.”

“Please continue this activity,” the proprietor said. It withdrew a little way into the shadows and stood quite motionless. Orr looked at the light play on some ratty old peacock feathers, observed a 1950 home-movie projector, a blue and while sake set, a heap of Mad magazines, priced quite high. He hefted a solid steel hammer and admired its balance; it was a well-made tool, a good thing. “Is this your own choice?” he asked the proprietor, wondering what the Aliens themselves might prize from all this flotsam of the affluent years of America.

“What comes is acceptable,” the Alien replied

A congenial point of view. “I wonder if you’d tell me something. In your language, what is the meaning of the word iahklu’?”

The proprietor came slowly forward again, edging the broad, shell-like armor carefully among fragile objects.

“Incommunicable. Language used for communication with individual-persons will not contain other forms of relationship. Jor Jor.” The right hand, a great, greenish, flipperlike extremity, came forward in a slow and perhaps tentative fashion. “Tiua’k Ennbe Ennbe.”

Orr shook hands with it. It stood immobile, apparently regarding him, though no eyes were visible inside the dark-tinted, vapor-filled headpiece. If it was a headpiece. Was there in fact any substantial form within that green carapace, that mighty armor? He didn’t know. He felt, however, completely at ease with Tiua’k Ennbe Ennbe.

“I don’t suppose,” he said, on impulse again, “that you ever knew anyone named Lelache?”

“Lelache. No. Do you seek Lelache.”

“I have lost Lelache.”

“Crossings in mist,” the Alien observed.

“That’s about it,” Orr said. He picked up from the crowded table before him a white bust of Franz Schubert about two inches high, probably a piano-teacher’s prize to a pupil. On the base the pupil had written, “What, Me Worry?” Schubert’s face was mild and impassive, a tiny bespectacled Buddha. “How much is this?” Orr asked.

“Five New Cents,” replied Tiua’k Ennbe Ennbe.

Orr produced a Fed-peep nickel.

“Is there any way to control iahklu’, to make it go the way it... ought to go?”

The Alien took the nickel and sidled majestically over to a chrome-plated cash register which Orr had assumed was for sale as an antique. It rang up the sale on the register and stood still a while.

“One swallow does not make a summer,” it said. “Many hands make light work.” It stopped again, apparently not satisfied with this effort at bridging the communication gap. It stood still for half a minute, then went to the front window and with precise, stiff, careful movements pulled out one of the antique disk-records displayed there, and brought it to Orr. It was a Beatles record: “With a Little Help from My Friends.”

“Gift,” it said. “Is it acceptable?”

“Yes,” Orr said, and took the record. “Thank you — thanks very much. It’s very kind of you. I am grateful.”

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The Lathe of Heaven
April 2008
ISBN: 1416556966

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First published by Charles Scribner's Sons
Copyright © 1971 by Ursula K. Le Guin
Website copyright © 2008 by Ursula K. Le Guin

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The Lathe of Heaven
Scribner Book Company
May 2008
ISBN: 1416556966

Updated Tuesday, 18-Jun-2019 10:14:28 EDT