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The Fountains


Ursula K. Le Guin

They knew, having given him cause, that Dr. Kereth might attempt to seek political asylum in Paris. Therefore, on the plane flying west, in the hotel, on the streets, at the meetings, even while he read his paper to the Cytology section, he was distantly accompanied at all times by obscure figures who might be explained as graduate students or Croatian microbiologists, but who had no names, or faces. Since his presence lent not only distinction to his country's delegation but also a certain luster to his government—See, we let even him come—they had wanted him there; but they kept him in sight. He was used to being in sight. In his small country a man could get out of sight only by not moving at all, by keeping voice, body, brain all quiet. He had always been a restless, visible man. Thus when all at once on the sixth day in the middle of a guided tour in broad daylight he found himself gone, he was confused for a time. Only by walking down a path could one achieve one's absence?

It was in a very strange place that he did so. A great desolate, terrible house stood behind him yellow in the yellow sunlight of afternoon. Thousands of many-colored dwarfs milled on terraces, beyond which a pale blue canal ran straight away into the unreal distance of September. The lawns ended in groves of chestnut trees a hundred feet high, noble, somber, shot through with gold. Under the trees they had walked in shadow on the riding-paths of dead kings, but the guide led them out again to sunlight on lawns and marble pavements. And ahead, straight ahead, towering and shining up into the air, fountains ran.

They sprang and sang high above their marble basins in the light. The petty, pretty rooms of the palace as big as a city where no one lived, the indifference of the noble trees that were the only fit inhabitants of a garden too large for men, the dominance of autumn and the past, all this was brought into proportion by the running of water. The phonograph voices of the guides fell silent, the camera eyes of the guided saw. The fountains leapt up, crashed down exulting, and washed death away.

They ran for forty minutes. Then they ceased. Only kings could afford to run the Great Fountains of Versailles and live forever. Republics must keep their own proportion. So the high white jets shrank, stuttering. The breasts of nymphs ran dry, the mouths of river-gods gaped black. The tremendous voice of uprushing and downfalling water became a rattling, coughing sigh. It was all through, and everyone stood for a moment alone. Adam Kereth turned, and seeing a path before him went down it away from the marble terraces, under the trees. Nobody followed him; and it was at this moment, though he was unaware of it, that he defected.

Late-afternoon light lay warm across the path between shadows, and through the light and shadows a young man and a young woman walked hand in hand. A long way behind them Adam Kereth walked by himself, tears running down his cheeks.

Presently the shadows fell away from him and he looked up to see no path, no lovers, only a vast tender light and, below him, many little round trees in tubs. He had come to the terrace above the Orangerie. Southward from this high place one saw only forest, France a broad forest in the autumn evening. Horns blew no longer, rousing wolf or wild boar for the king's hunt; there was no great game left. The only tracks in that forest would be the footprints of young lovers who had come out from Paris on the bus, and walked among the trees, and vanished.

With no intent, unconscious still of his defection, Kereth roamed back along wide walks towards the palace, which stood now in the sinking light no longer yellow but colorless, like a sea-cliff over a beach when the last bathers are leaving. From beyond it came a dim roar like surf, engines of tourist busses starting back to Paris. Kereth stood still. A few small figures hurried on the terraces between silent fountains. A woman's voice far off called to a child, plaintive as a gull's cry. Kereth turned around and without looking back, intent now, conscious, erect as one who has just stolen something—a pineapple, a purse, a loaf from a counter and has got it hidden under his coat, he strode back into the dusk among the trees.

“This is mine,” he said aloud to the high chestnuts and the oaks, like a thief among policemen. “This is mine!” The oaks and chestnuts, French, planted for aristocrats, did not answer his fierce republican claim made in a foreign language. But all the same their darkness, the taciturn, complicit darkness of all forests where fugitives have hidden, gathered around him.

He was not long in the groves, an hour or less; there were gates to be locked and he did not want to be locked in. That was not what he was here for. So before nightfall he came up the terraces, still walking erect and calm as any king or kleptomaniac, and went around the huge, pale, many-windowed sea-cliff and across its cobbled beach. One bus still chuffed there, a blue bus, not the grey one he dreaded. His bus was gone. Gone, washed out to sea, with the guide, the colleagues, the fellow countrymen, the microbiologists, the spies. Gone and left him in possession of Versailles. Above him Louis XIV, foreshortened on a prodigious horse, asserted the existence of absolute privilege. Kereth looked up at the bronze face, the big bronze Bourbon nose, as a child looks up at his older brother, loving and derisive. He went on through the gates, and in a café across the Paris road his sister served him vermouth at a dusty green table under sycamores. The wind of night and autumn blew from the south, from the forests, and like the vermouth its scent was a little bitter, an odor of dry leaves.

A free man, he took his own way in his own time to the suburban station, bought his own ticket, returned to Paris by himself. Where he came up out of the Metro nobody knows, perhaps not himself, nor where he wandered in the city while defecting. At eleven o'clock at night he was standing at the parapet of the Solferino Bridge, a short man of forty-seven in a shoddy suit, a free man. He watched the lights of the bridge and of farther bridges tremble on the black river running quietly. Up and down the river on either bank stood the asylums: the Government of France, the Embassies of America and England. He had walked past them all. Perhaps it was too late at night to enter them. Standing on the bridge there in the middle, between the Left Bank and the Right Bank, he thought: There are no hiding places left. There are no thrones; no wolves, no boars; even the lions of Africa are dying out. The only safe place is the zoo.

But he had never cared much about being safe, and now thought that he did not care much about hiding either, having found something better: his family, his inheritance. Here he had at last walked in the garden larger than life, on paths where his older brothers had gone before him, crowned. After that he really could not take refuge in the zoo. He went on across the bridge and under the dark arches of the Louvre, returning to his hotel. Knowing now that he was both a king and a thief and so was at home anywhere, what turned him to his own land was mere fidelity. For what else should move a man, these days? Kingly he strode past the secret-police agent in the hotel lobby, hiding under his coat the stolen, inexhaustible fountains.


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