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The Worthing Saga
The Day of Pain
In many places in the Peopled Worlds, the pain came suddenly in the midst of the
day's labor. It was as if an ancient and comfortable presence left them, one that they had
never noticed until it was gone, and no one knew what to make of it at first, though all knew
at once that something had changed deep at the heart of the world. No one saw the brief flare
in the star named Argos; it would be years before astronomers would connect the Day of Pain
with the End of Worthing. And by then the change was done, the worlds were broken, and
the golden age was over.
In Lared's village, the change came while they slept. That night there were no
shepherds in their dreams. Lared's little sister, Sala, awoke screaming in terror that Grandma
was dead, Grandma is dead!
Lared sat up in his truckle bed, trying to dispel his own dreams, for in them he had
seen his father carry Grandma to the grave -- but that had been long ago, hadn't it? Father
stumbled from the wooden bedstead where he and Mother slept. Not since Sala had been
weaned had anyone cried out in the night. Was she hungry?
"Grandma died tonight, like a fly in the fire she died!"
Like a squirrel in the fox's teeth, thought Lared. Like a lizard in the cat's mouth,
"Of course she's dead," Father said, "but not tonight." He took her in his vast
blacksmith's arms and held her. "Why do you weep now, when Grandma has been dead for
such a long time?" But Sala wept on, as if the grief were great and new.
Then Lared looked at Grandma's old bed. "Father," he whispered. Again, "Father."
For there lay her corpse, still new, still stiffening, though Lared so clearly remembered her
burial long ago.
Father lay Sala back in her truckle bed, where she burrowed down against the woven
straw side, in order not to watch. Lared watched, though, as his father touched the straw tick
beside his old mother's body. "Not cold yet," he murmured. Then he cried out in fear and
agony, "Mother!" Which woke all the sleepers, even the travelers in the room upstairs; they
all came into the sleeping room.
"Do you see it!" cried Father. "Dead a year, at least, and here's her body not yet cold
in her own bed!"
"Dead a year!" cried the old clerk, who had arrived late in the afternoon yesterday, on
a donkey. "Nonsense! She served the soup last night. Don't you remember how she joked
with me that if my bed was too cold, your wife would come up and warm it, and if it was too
warm, she would sleep with me?"
Lared tried to sort out his memories. "I remember that, but I remember that she said
that long, long ago, and yet I remember she said it to you, and I never saw you before last
"I buried you!" Father cried, and then he knelt at Grandma's bed and wept. "I buried
you, and forgot you, and here you are to grieve me!"
Weeping. It was an unaccustomed sound in the village of Flat Harbor, and no one
knew what to do about it. Only hungry infants made such cries, and so Mother said, "Elmo,
will you eat something? Let me fetch you something to eat."
"No!" shouted Elmo. "Don't you see my mother's dead?" And he caught his wife by
the arm and flung her roughly away. She fell over the stool and struck her head against the
This was worse than the corpse lying in the bed, stiff as a dried-out bird. For never in
Lared's life had he seen one human being do harm to another. Father, too, was aghast at his
own temper. "Thano, Thanalo, what have I done?" He scarcely knew how to comfort her as
she lay weeping softly on the floor. No one had needed comfort in all their lives. To all the
others, Father said, "I was so angry. I have never been so angry before, and yet what did she
do? I've never felt such a rage, and yet she did me no harm!"
Who could answer him? Something was bitterly wrong with the world, they could see
that; they had all felt anger in the past, but till now something had always come between the
thought and the act, and calmed them. Now, tonight, that calm was gone. They could feel it
in themselves, nothing soothing their fear, nothing telling them wordlessly, All is well.
Sala raised her head above the edge of her bed and said, "The angels are gone, Mama.
No one watches us anymore."
Mother got up from the floor and stumbled over to her daughter. "Don't be foolish,
child. There are no angels, except in dreams."
There is a lie in my mind, Lared said to himself. The traveler came last night, and
Grandma spoke to him just as he said, and yet my memory is twisted, for I remember the
traveler speaking yesterday, but Grandma answering long ago. Something has bent my
memories, for I remember grieving at her graveside, and yet her grave has not been dug.
Mother looked up at Father in awe. "My elbow still hurts, where it struck the floor,"
she said. "It still hurts very much."
A hurt that lasted! Who had heard of such a thing! And when she lifted her arm,
there was a raw and bleeding scrape on it.
"Have I killed you?" asked Father, wonderingly.
"No," said Mother. "I don't think so."
"Then why does it bleed?"
The old clerk trembled and nodded and his voice quivered as he spoke. "I have read
the books of ancient times," he began, and all eyes turned to him. "I have read the books of
ancient times, and in them the old ones spoke of wounds that bleed like slaughtered attle, and
great griefs when the living suddenly are dead, and anger that turned to blows among people.
But that was long, long ago, when men were still animals, and God was young and
"What does this mean, then?" asked Father. He was not a bookish man, and so even
more than Lared he thought that men who knew books had answers.
"I don't know," said the clerk. "But perhaps it means that God has gone away, or that
he no longer cares for us."
Lared studied the corpse of Grandma, lying on her bed. "Or is he dead?" Lared asked.
"How can God die?" the old clerk asked with withering scorn. "He has all the power
in the universe."
"Then doesn't he have the power to die if he wants to?"
"Why should I speak with children of things like this?" The clerk got up to go
upstairs, and the other travelers took that as a signal to return to bed.
But Father did not go to bed: he knelt by his old mother's body until daybreak. And
Lared also did not sleep, because he was trying to remember what he had felt inside himself
yesterday that he did not feel now, for something was strange in the way his own eyes looked
out upon the world, and yet he could not remember how it was before. Only Sala and
Mother slept, and they slept together in Mother's and Father's bed.
Before dawn, Lared got up and walked over to his mother, and saw that a scab had
formed on her arm, and the bleeding had stopped. Comforted, he dressed himself and went
out to milk the ewe, which was near the end of its milk. Every bit of the milk was needed for
the cheese press and the butter churn -- winter was coming, and this morning, as the cold
breeze whipped at Lared's hair, this morning he looked to winter with dread. Until today he
had always looked at the future like a cow looking at the pasture, never imagining drought or
snow. Now it was possible for old women to be found dead in their beds. Now it was
possible for Father to be angry and knock Mother to the floor. Now it was possible for
Mother to bleed like an animal. And so winter was more than just a season of inactivity. It
was the end of hope.
The ewe perked up at something, a sound perhaps that Lared was too human to hear.
He stopped milking and looked up, and saw in the western sky a great light, which hovered in
the air like a star that had lost its bearings and needed help to get back home. Then the light
sank down below the level of the trees across the river, and it was gone. Lared did not know
at first what it might be. Then he remembered the word starship from school and wondered.
Starships did not come to Flat Harbor, or even to this continent, or even, more than once a
decade, to this world. Thee was nothing here to carry away to somewhere else, nothing
lacking here that only other worlds could possibly supply. Why, then, would a starship come
here now? Don't be a fool, Lared, he told himself. It was a shooting star, but on this strange
morning you made too much of it, because you are afraid.
At dawn, Flat Harbor came awake, and others gradually made the discovery that had
come to Lared's family in the night. They came, as they always did in cold weather, to
Elmo's house, with its great table and indoor kitchen. They were not surprised to find that
Elmo had not yet built up the fire in his forge.
"I scalded myself on the gruel this morning," said Dinno, Mother's closest friend. She
held up the smoothed skin of her fingers for admiration. "Hurts like it was still in the fire.
Good God," she said.
Mother had her own wounds, but she chose not to tell that tale. "When that old clerk
went to leave this morning, his donkey kicked him square in the belly, and now he's upstairs.
Too much hurt to travel, he says. Threw up his breakfast."
There were a score of minor, careless injuries, and by noon most people were walking
more carefully, carrying out their tasks more slowly. Not a one of them but had some injury.
Omber, one of the diggers of Grandma's grave, crushed his foot with a pick, and it bled for a
long, long time; now, white and weak and barely alive, he lay drawing scant breath in one of
Mother's guest beds. And father, death on his mind, would not even take the hammer in his
hand on the Day of Pain, "For fear I'll strike fire into my eye, or break my hand. God
doesn't look out for us anymore."
They laid Grandma into the ground at noon, and all day Lared and Sala were busy
helping Mother with the work that Grandma used to do. Her place at table was so empty.
Many a sentence began, "Grandma." And Father always looked away as if searching for
something hidden deep in the walls. Try as they might, no one could think of a time before
this when grief had been anything but a dim and wistful memory; never had the loss of a
loved one come so suddenly, with the gap in their lives so plain, with the soil on the grave so
black and rich, fresh as the first-turned fold of earth in the spring plowing.
Late in the afternoon, Omber died, the last blood of his body seeping into the rough
bandage. He lay beside the wide-eyed clerk, who still vomited everything he swallowed and
cried out in pain when he tried to sit. Never in their lives had they seen a man die still in his
strength and prime, and just from a careless blow of a pick.
They were still digging the new grave for Omber when Bran's daughter, Clany, fell
into the fire and lay screaming for three hours before she died. No one could even speak
when they laid her into the third grave of the day. For a village of a scant three hundred
souls, the death of three on the same day would have been calamitous; the death of a strong
man and a young child, that undid them all.