Ansible Document 01-01101-944-4-WX114: To the Stabile on Beldene: Report from Genly Ai, First Investigator on WX-114, Hainish Cycle 94, Ekumenical Year 1499
Contrary to space gossip, there are no frogmen on WX-114. Its people are not truly amphibious at all. They swim often and can do so for long distances, they have enormous lung capacity, and on land they dehydrate faster than a Terran would. But that's all there is. They breathe air, they live on land; they are, incontrovertibly, as old-Hainish as the rest of us. Sometimes one almost feels that the way they do everything is as much existential as it is adaptive. Their answers are clear: they live by the water because the water is there, and the water is there because they live by it.
Thus far, everyone has been friendly to me and no one has been particularly interested. They continue to accept with equanimity the (frankly threadbare) story that I was shipwrecked on the island where Eala found me, and that I remember little of my life before that. I'm expected but never asked to work, I have my own room in the communal building, and I eat my dinners in the dining area with everyone else. After three full days with them, I am entirely accepted and entirely outside.
Everyone is talkative. They tell me very little.
Then there are the questions. Or rather, there aren't the questions. But it isn't immediately apparent, because at first they seem to speak like anyone on any other world. People still express curiosity and interest, and sometimes satisfy curiosity or interest. They just do it without the help of questions. If I want to know why several people go on boat patrol, dualla, each day, I have to say, within earshot of people, "I don't understand why we do this." "I wish I knew why we do this." And then, sometimes—if my curiosity is deemed acceptable? if the topic is sufficiently interesting? if the mood, the moon, the chemistry is right?—someone will answer. An additional oddity: after being introduced to a person, one doesn't use his name again when speaking to him; from then on it can only be used in reference to him in conversation with a third party.
At first I attributed this to an over-zealous notion of politeness or discretion. But there is no strict code of behavior. No religious tradition I've noticed yet, certainly not a proscriptive one. Not even much true discretion—generally they show emotion more readily than Terrans, criticize others whenever they like, and talk freely about sexual partners.
[They are, on that note, not strictly monogamous, but long-term pairings do exist. There are no formal or legal unions. No restrictions on sexual behavior; no one seems to dwell much at all on the sex act. Their default seems to be bisexuality.]
Why has no one demanded to know why there was no evidence of a shipwreck on the island where they found me? Or questioned why I seem ignorant of the most basic customs, words, and features of my own world? Why does my mysterious past discourage rather than encourage further investigation? Why does no one ever touch me, or address me by my name?
No one answers.
Kiyoshi Dan said this would help. I'm not sure I believe her, but I've been down five days now, I have yet to find a foothold, and there are things you can't put in an ansible report. "I'm already tired of eating fish." "I miss question marks." "You know this wasn't what I wanted."
After six months of leave, after Winter became the eighty-fourth world of the Ekumen, the Council summoned me to Hain for a new assignment. Kiyoshi was at home, just back from a year as Investigator on a planet called Szumi. She had offered me a room when I told her I was coming, but when I arrived I could see that she was nonplussed, and didn't recognize me at all. On the first night she came into my bed, remembering another time. After that she didn't come again, and we talked mostly about Szumi.
I told the Council what I wanted. I wanted a planet with no known large-scale strife. I wanted a two-sexed world and I wanted a temperate world, no androgynes and no Ice Ages. Nothing like Winter.
They told me I was to be First Investigator on WX-114, an untouched, newly discovered world ninety percent covered by water.
"Technically, you didn't say you wanted to be a Mobile again," Kiyoshi said, rational as always, when I returned. "And WX-114 just came out of an Ice Age. The Council works in mysterious ways." When I didn't smile, she said, "Well, there are two sexes. They don't normally take special requests, Genly. You knew that going in."
"'Normally,'" I said.
Kiyoshi sat down on the guest bed beside me. "I think it's easier to be an Investigator. Confusing, lonely sometimes, but not as dangerous. As for the loneliness, what you do is keep a journal, for yourself and not the ansible. It helps." She was thinking about Szumi. There was a particular feeling about her when she did. "You can't get genuinely close to anyone down there, because you're always concealing the truth about yourself from everyone. I've heard that it's different for Mobiles, that sometimes they get to really know—"
"I've heard tell," I said.
She looked at me levelly. "I think that's why they gave this to you. I do mean gave it. It won't be anything like that. It'll be easier."
Kiyoshi's done this before; she should know. So: the things I can't write for the ansible. I am already tired of eating fish and not asking questions. And I am lonely. And it is easier.
This evening, helping to boil seawater in the kitchen, I saw Eala for the first time since she'd brought me to the island in her boat, or duall. Across the room, she was talking to a man kneeling on the floor to fix the kitchen radio, which seems to malfunction every other day. (Sea air? It never seems to upset anyone overmuch.) I suggested—I am learning—to Orrin next to me that he might watch my pots for a moment, and went over to speak to Eala.
She'd been out again today, and had met with an expedition boat from another island, where several children of the islanders here are now living. It was the first time I'd heard children mentioned, there being no apparent kinship ties among anyone in this community. I managed to gather a little useful information for the ansible.
I'm uncertain about this part, though, so it won't go in with the rest of the official material until I understand—
Before she went into the common area, Eala said, "Genly was on an [word I didn't catch] island before he came with me."
I was confused until I realized that she had just brought the radio repairman into the conversation. This is a favorite stratagem for not-asking a question: using a third party's supposed ignorance to elicit information.
"A what island?" But she was already leaving, and I was muttering an oath under my breath when I remembered the repairman. I apologized—as though he knew the meaning of Terran profanity.
"Aodh," he said, very distinctly.
"—Oh. Oh, you mean, she was saying 'an aodh island.'" It was very difficult to prevent my inflection from rising at the end. No question marks, Genly.
The repairman half-smiled. "It did surprise people that there was someone staying on an island that has a year of fallow time left. But then you didn't have a radio."
He got to his feet, and I was trying to commit the word to memory, aodh, when I realized that he had just answered me very deftly. He'd replied to the question I'd asked of Eala, and then translated without my request. Aodh: describing an island that by mutual agreement no one will use for a set period. I couldn't thank him—that would have been too much acknowledgement of the favor he'd just done me so gracefully—so I said the next best thing.
"I'm Genly Ai."
"Connac. I don't know Ai," he said conversationally, and I was lost again.
"I haven't heard your name before either," I ventured. "Does it—" No. "I'm interested in the meanings of names."
"I'd be interested to know the meaning of my name too," he said, and the corner of his mouth lifted again. "But most people don't know theirs. A little sad, when you think about it—being called 'Genly' and never knowing why."
Then it was dinner. Orrin and I brought in the water pots, and the talk was all of Eala's patrol and the prodigal children, who had promised to visit this season. It's only just now occurred to me that Connac said my name to me a second time.
Ansible Document 01-01101-944-5-WX114
From conversations with Morel:
One's relocated adult child is called a moikna, plural moiknem. The literal translation is roughly "child(ren) across the sea."
"(Juvenile) child" is moil. "Children" is moillem, but for some reason the plural form is almost never used.
I have yet to hear any word for "friend." Or a word for any social or familial relationship, in fact, except for "child."
The communal house is the Gallan. "House" of course isn't nearly the right word—the Gallan is much too large, shelters too many unrelated people, and serves too many purposes. My best approximation is something more akin to "lodge," or perhaps "community-house." The First Mobile here should be a better linguist than I.
The most important word, of course, is ishkeh. Water.
No discoveries worth mentioning until last night. And even last night I don't understand.
I sat with Morel at dinner. Of everyone here, she's the closest thing I have to a friend so far. Though of course no one here would call it that, lacking the word. She's the most comfortable to be with, because the least frustrating, because the most talkative. She's no more receptive to direct questioning than anyone else, but much more helpful in contextualizing new words and ideas. She's young, though.
In converted years, based on WX-114's orbit, she's probably not much younger than I am. But then I'm much older than I am.
After dinner, people began dispersing, to their rooms or to the bonfire on the beach, or simply off on their own along the shoreline. People rarely stray farther from the ocean than the Gallan. I was making for the bonfire—any anthropologist will tell you that oral tradition is fertile ground—when Morel passed me on the sand, turned back, and said, "I'm going to work on mine. You could come scout out a space for yourself."
I had no idea what she meant. So I went with her.
We walked eastward, barefoot on the firm, tide-whorled sand at the water's edge, companionably silent. When we reached the headland, where the strip of sand narrows to single-file width between rock and sea, Morel happily veered into the surf and swam, long and lithe, keeping even with me effortlessly. The sand was white, the water silver, everything cool and flawless, as in if deep freeze.
After a while she waded back to the beach without a word, and we stopped.
"I'll show you mine," she said. The sand widened, the headland sloping back down to the sea, and the beach before us was full of fantastic shadows and shapes.
They were mounds of sand. Except not simple mounds, but rather squat, compact sculptures, patterns of lines and curves, none of them reaching an average Terran adult's knee. Until we drew very near, I couldn’t tell that they were made of sand at all. They were astonishingly beautiful. They looked like nothing I'd ever known.
Morel went to one of the shorter ones, an oblong shape that slanted down precipitously from its highest peak on one end to ground level on the other. She knelt and pressed a palm flat against its taller side.
"This is mine," she said. Something in her face made me come closer and, slowly, lay my hand on it next to hers. Hers was longer, narrower, slightly darker, and had a faint trace of webbing between the bases of the fingers. The part we were touching was absolutely smooth, perfect. WX-114's sand is firmer than Earth's, and retains more heat, so that Morel's shape felt almost fleshly.
I didn't know what I could say. I don't know the word for "beautiful," if there even is one.
I said, on impulse, "It's right." A phrase that someone had used, with great warmth, when Connac finally fixed the radio the other night; and again one afternoon, when a school of fish, startled by something too deep to see, veered and flashed across the underside of a wave, lacing the blue with gold.
"It's not finished," Morel said, but she sounded pleased. She gestured with her free hand at the lower side of the shape. "Most people are already done, but I keep forgetting to come out. Lazy, I guess." She smiled, this time more clearly at me. "It's almost Winterday, though, so I need to finish."
I was translating "Winterday" in my head when I felt her. And I knew there had been a misstep, that touching her shape, or liking it, meant more than touching or liking it. She didn't move or speak. But I felt her. If these people have any mindspeech capacity they don't use it, but their moods, at least, live very near the surface. She felt warm, relaxed, tuned in. So did I. And I couldn't, no more than I could with Kiyoshi on Hain.
"I'd like to watch you finish it," I said at last.
Immediately she withdrew into herself, like a wave drawn back toward the horizon. Still, she didn't stop smiling.
"That's fine," she said. She knew exactly how I had answered the question that she hadn't asked, and she accepted it easily. She took her hand away and we were friends again. Or as close as two aliens, one a liar, could come.
She went around to the lower side of the shape, and I drew back to watch her from farther away, to see all of it at once. Instead of kneeling again in the sand beside it, she stepped onto the flat, unfinished section, and began to dance.
I've never seen anyone wearing shoes here. They would be cumbersome in the water, and constantly damp out of it. Their feet are more like hands, multipurpose and dexterous, for swimming and grasping things on the ocean floor. And, apparently, for gathering, shaping, and sculpting sand.
Morel worked intently for some time, then stepped off, went down on her knees, and began doing detail-work with her hands. I let out a slow breath; everything had felt too poised and balanced to make a sound before.
She looked up at me and said, "I think I can finish tonight." A small, self-deprecating grin. "If I stay inspired."
"I can go back," I said.
She shook her head. "Unless you're tired. It's nice to have someone watch. Nicer to be the one doing it though, I know. There's plenty of beach left, but you came so late in the season, I don't think you could finish yours in time. But next year."
"That's fine," I said, and we both laughed. Next year, she expected me on this beach.
Through the night, the tide furled up and down the beach behind us, never coming near. The shapes stayed unthreatened. They stood in shadows along the shore for perhaps half a mile, all in a loose, undulating line, public and yet inestimably personal. They seemed familiar, making a sound in my mind like a stone dropped down a deep hole, but I couldn't remember why. I sat in the dry sand and watched Morel dance.
Ansible Document 01-01101-944-6-WX114
Per Morel: aodh is the term for an island that, per (what passes for) international law, stays uninhabited for two full years, so that it may lie fallow, its resources untouched. Even a nomadic group desperate for a winter port won't settle on such an island. There's little enough land here, I suppose, that what exists must be conserved.
Longer supplement to follow on first evidence of visual art. (?)
There appears to be no term for the shapes on the beach. I've spoken to several people about them, and they identified them only with possessives: "ours," generic. Or individually: Morel's, Eala's, Gaelin's. Everyone seems to have one. Everyone makes one every year, no earlier than late summer when the seasonal rains end and no later than Winterday, when the rains resume. In winter no one wants to work outdoors more than is absolutely necessary, and in the spring the tides are at their highest and the last year's shapes are washed away.
I went out again last night, to the beach that I've started privately calling the Gallery, and walked along the line to look at all of them. The other night with Morel—who by her very presence familiarizes things—they seemed engaging, significant. But last night, among them in the darkness on my own, I failed to see in them any hint as to which was whose, and felt achingly alone.
So I went back this afternoon, in the last orange heat of the day. Hard to believe that winter begins soon. The trek along the beach was humid, the air rough with sand and salt. When I rounded the curve of the shore and the first shapes filtered into view, I postponed another close-up viewing for the moment. Instead I climbed to one of the lower ridges of the dwindling headland slope, seeking a breeze.
I was catching my breath and looking out at the ocean with a view for distance. I didn't realize Connac was down in the Gallery until he began to move again.
He was working on a patch of sand below and not two hundred yards from me, at the outer limit of usable damp sand. A dune had concealed him as I approached; he must have been down on his knees doing detail-work. But now he was up and dancing again. Truly there isn't a better word for it. I couldn't see his shape, only his fierce concentration and his slightly irregular movements, not quite as graceful or easy as Morel, but still expert, assured, and unselfconscious.
I hadn't been near him since our first meeting. I couldn't call out his name, nor could I backtrack without his seeing me, now that he was on his feet again.
"Morel thought hers was the latest," I said finally, too loudly for the distance between us.
He glanced up and saw me, and stopped.
"Sorry," I said. "I didn't know you were there."
"Likewise," he said. We stood looking at each other. "I didn't make one last year," he offered at last, like a verbal truce.
I wanted to ask, but instead said awkwardly, "I can't make one this year. Too late, and I'm… not very good at it."
"As you see," he said, and finally smiled: "neither am I." I couldn't see. "It's all right. This is a good time to leave it for a while and rest. I brought eeskal, if you're as hungry as I am. You can come down."
"Probably not as hungry as you are," I said, "but hungry enough, thanks. But come up here where it's cooler."
There was a beat as he regarded me, and his smile seemed a little fixed. I waited, aware that I was in unknown territory, that I might have offended him—how? Is the imperative mood off limits as well as the interrogative? No, I was sure I'd heard people telling each other what to do before—
"I'll be up," Connac said. His head disappeared briefly behind the dune, and then he straightened, a food pouch in one hand, and attacked the slope.
I watched him, seething with embarrassment. From my perch on the ridge I could see everything, and we both knew it. He limped on his right leg, badly, and it was impossible to tell if it was always that noticeable or if the dancing had exacerbated it. I had only ever seen him standing by the kitchen radio. But he didn't know that, didn't know that I didn't know, and so we both sweated and suffered as he made his long progress up the incline, occasionally scrabbling for purchase in the loose sand.
I couldn't look him in the face when he reached me, but I knew he was looking very directly and openly at me. "Eeskal," he said, and handed me a few strips of dried fish from his pouch.
Of course I wanted to apologize. And of course I couldn't, because apologizing would have acknowledged it. Of course, too, I wanted to ask what had happened and couldn't. Even on Earth, with no linguistic restrictions, it would be an impertinent question. But I wanted to. What was it, what's the secret, what private catastrophe was it that hurt you so thoroughly?
"Thank you," I said.
I wanted to sit down, but knew that he wouldn't—it would be too obvious an exertion, lowering himself smoothly—and therefore I couldn't either. So we stood there, chewing eeskal, staring at the sea.
After a time, he offered his pouch to me. He said, "You can take calafort whenever you like, you know."
I stayed very still—this is rapidly becoming my response to stumbling onto any uncertain linguistic ground—and looked hard at the pouch in his hand.
"I—" There was nothing for it but honesty. "I don't know what that means."
He said the word again: "Calafort. Where we are." I looked at him without expression. "As in Connac calafort." He took a bite, patiently.
Something glimmered for me. When Eala had taken me aboard, that first day, she'd said the same word. She'd said, "I'm Eala calafort." Or: Eala Calafort. Connac Calafort. A surname? But I had been quite sure that there were no blood relatives in the community, and that their social structure wasn't clannish.
Thoughtfully, I reached for the pouch. "Ah. So Calafort… is…" I flicked the bait at him, hoping he'd take it before he realized that I had nothing more.
His mouth full, Connac said, "—landname—"
—and all was whiteness and noise around us. The shining sand blurred, the drifts of the dunes sparkled, and the sea glinted in a blinding echo of the sun. The surf roared against the rocks. Again the lone dark figure swept through the snow, across my field of vision, toward the fence and into the blasting brightness of the foray guns. I couldn't move, and the air was so cold it froze my tongue and my tears, and someone behind me seemed to be hissing madness into my ear, Son of Estre, the traitor, loyal only to his landname—
—and something pulled me down and out.
I was still holding the pouch, and so was Connac. He had sat down, and between us the tension had tugged, and I had felt it.
I sat down beside him, abruptly, or I would have fallen. He was watching the sky, holding himself rigid. There were lines of strain—pain?—around his mouth. He couldn't touch my hand; there is no casual touching here; but he didn't let go of the thing that connected us until I did.
"I'm not hungry," I said, over the pounding of my heart. Now I wished I had gone down into the warm dunes with him: I was drenched in sweat, and the wind chilled every drop.
He put the pouch away. "Calafort," he said, resuming as though without any interruption, "is our islandname."
Of course—they all take the name of their island. Something I should've anticipated, really. Not anthropologically uncommon. I couldn't stop shaking.
"Can't eat without drinking," said Connac mildly, and passed me a flask that he'd had strapped to his good leg. It felt cool on the tongue but burned going down. I'd been wondering if they had some kind of hard drink.
I held myself to a single gulp, unsure of its potency, then passed it back to him, feeling my muscles beginning to unclench. "Thanks."
He looked at it for a moment, but strapped it back to his leg without partaking. "I've never heard of Ai."
It only took me a moment. "Oh— no. There isn't an Ai." He watched my face, not pressing me. "I mean—well, I was alone."
"When Eala found you on the aodh island," he filled in.
"Yes," I said. "But longer than that." I grinned sideways at him, and it was almost convincing. "I'm not just stupid or forgetful. I really didn't learn a lot of this. There was no one to teach me."
He couldn't ask me for how long. I was glad, because I wouldn't have known how to answer.
"But you still became Ai," he said.
"Yes, Genly Ai," I said. It came to me fully formed, like truth: "I made myself Genly Ai. Genly I. I, Genly. I the island."
Connac was looking at me very seriously, very strangely.
"I see." And I knew that for him this wasn't mere politeness. He saw. The most self-contained man in this whole community of independent, competent people: he saw.
Grateful, I said, "Maybe I'll take Calafort someday. When I make mine, down there."
He gazed down at the crowded Gallery, the shapes of everyone he had ever known—besides me.
"I wonder," he said, not quite asking the question, "what it was like. Being so alone for so long."
I ruined several pages of this journal, idiotically bringing it down to the shore with me today. The autumn warmth lingers, though Connac talks as if Winterday is moments away.
The fish are plentiful, with no natural predators—besides us—that I know of. They flutter against your back as you float, held up by the sea's extreme salinity. Connac catches them with his bare hands, too fast for the human— for the Terran eye. If we could live in the water, you would never suspect about his leg.
Tonight darkness fell long before the water became too cold for us. Everyone ate outside around the fire pit. I cooked fish, and Morel told us about her day's dualla, and Connac fell asleep on the sand.
Not like Winter. Nothing like Winter.
Ansible Document 01-01101-944-7-WX114
"As-" is a negating prefix, sometimes meaning literally "un-" or "non-," but also sometimes a more conceptual reversal. An anti-. Asmuir, for example, is as|muir—"anti-hot"—"cold."
Dualla: from duall, the word for "boat." Meaning the open-ocean expeditions that several islanders—on some kind of democratically decided schedule—undertake every day of the year. (Weather permitting, of course.) They come home with any number of things: deep-sea fish, fresh maps and charts, news of other islands and islanders they've encountered. There is no equivalent word in my language. "Expedition" is wrong, implying a definite objective. So is "journey," with its connotation of traveling to, rather than simply traveling. "Patrol" has military undertones, and large-scale war is not a concept I've ever heard anyone allude to.
Dualla is going out in search of knowledge.
For the First Mobile who will someday follow me, whoever you may be: know that the allure of going dualla is also the allure of going native.
Eala sleeps in the room next to mine, rarely alone. Gaelin, with whom I've only just started socializing, joins her on most nights. Sex here is neither particularly private nor particularly significant in itself, and usually occurs during the day, in between tasks and meals. But whom a person regularly sleeps with—that signifies. The walls here are thin, and I can hear when Gaelin goes in each night.
This morning, their voices in the hall woke me. For a moment I lay in bed, watching the sunlight flicker through the translucent cloth over my window. It was much earlier than they or I usually get up. I couldn't make out most of what they said, but could sense their high spirits.
When I went out into the hall, they were leaning against a wall together, talking. Eala's back was to me, but Gaelin saw me and touched Eala on the arm.
"Ishkeh," Gaelin murmured, and I hesitated, waiting to hear why they were talking about water. But all Gaelin said, over Eala's shoulder, was "Good morning!"
"Morning," I said, as Eala turned around. "It's early."
"We woke you," observed Eala. "Sorry. I always forget there's someone next door again. That room's been empty since Suibhal went asgalla two years ago."
All Investigators, Kiyoshi told me the night before I left Hain, end up as polymaths. Already I'm beginning to think like a linguist. At a guess, the closest word to galla I know is Gallan: the settlement, as a location as well as a community. The -lla suffix relates to sea travel. So, asgalla—"anti-homing"? The action of sailing away from home? And if there's a word for that, it's a regular occurrence. Why?
Kiyoshi was right about this as well: an Investigator needs a personal journal. If I couldn't ask these questions somewhere, I would go mad.
At the time, though, Gaelin broke in on my theorizing: "It's my turn to go dualla today. Eala usually comes, but I like a full crew of four. You have a spot, if you want to get out to sea today." She grinned. "Consider it an apology for the rude awakening, if you like."
It was the first time someone had offered to bring me along, and I accepted eagerly. Gaelin went off in the direction of the kitchen for provisions, and I followed Eala out to the shore.
It was colder outside than usual, and unexpectedly we weren't alone. Others were already working, gray shapes moving in the mist drifting in off the ocean. Down the beach someone was casting and tying down the day's shore-nets. Somewhere in the distance, the generator that provides most of the island's electrical power turned over, coughed, turned over again, and began to hum. Down at the waterline where the duallem were moored, Connac was knee-deep in the surf, a long-handled bucket hung over his neck to leave his hands free, waterproofing hulls with black tree gum.
As we approached, he took a painter line between his teeth, holding a duall against the tide while he tarred with both hands. He pointed with his chin down the line.
"Ones at that end are all seaworthy," he told Eala, lisping a little around the rope. She jogged over to choose one. "For all the good it'll do," Connac told no one in particular, "with the rain five days away, six at the outside."
"Good morning to you too," I said.
"Hmm." He was scrutinizing his project. "Right, this one's as watertight as it can get without a completely new hull."
"We're going dualla," I said. "We still need a fourth."
He glanced at me absently, letting the painter drop. "Oh?" Steadying the hull with his left hand, he rinsed his right clean, then switched. He came splashing through the shallows toward me, shivering a little in the damp cold. "I hate this weather," he said, uncharacteristically vehement. "It always comes too soon. I'm waiting to get some feeling back in my legs before I do the next one."
I laughed at his disconsolate expression. "Where I come from, this is balmy."
He shot me a sideways look, no doubt wondering again about my cold, deserted homeland. "Pass me that tarp," he said. He seemed suddenly impenetrable.
Back on the sand, he was moving stiffly on his bad leg, and I felt a pang of contrition and inexplicable loneliness. I handed him a tarp that had been rolled up on the sand nearby, and he began briskly to rub himself dry.
"Time!" I heard Gaelin call. She was loping down the beach toward us, carrying several packs of supplies. She skidded to a halt as she came near. "Morning," she said cheerfully to Connac. "We're going out."
"The fourth spot," I said, remembering her invitation to me. "If you haven't asked anyone yet, Connac's taking a rest from waterproofing…."
There was a flicker of uncertainty across her face. She was looking at me, but when she spoke it was clearly to Connac. "No, we haven't asked anyone yet."
"Thanks," Connac said. "I'd rather stay ashore."
"Orrin's been complaining that he's bored," Gaelin said. "He'll come. He's a better cartographer than the rest of us anyway." Her smile included me.
It was the most alien I'd felt in a long time, when Connac wouldn't come. I don't know why.
It was, though, a beautiful morning out at sea. The sun came up and burnt off the last of the early haze, and the sky was cloudless, bluer than the water. "Sky" is bokna, the same as "ocean," and now I understand why. It's hard to remain objective—I had forgotten that, since Winter—but I want these people to join the Ekumen, I want to help it to happen. I want them to sail the sky.
We spent most of the day in open water, disappointing Orrin, who had very little to do with no mappable land. He sat with me in the bow showing me the charts he'd drawn up on other outings—they're quite skillful; like the Gallery, an art form in a culture that has no word for art—while Gaelin and Eala navigated in the stern, their conversation muffled by the outboard motor. Once, Orrin caught me watching them and said simply, "Yes. They've found it."
And something prompted me to say, only half-comprehending: "They're lucky."
The sun was well past its zenith when we came within sight of another island. The boat radio began emitting a low, steady pulse as we neared, and Gaelin said, "No. Aodh."
She cut the motor and dropped anchor. We opened our packs and ate, the ubiquitous eeskal but also slices of the sweet purple fruit that grows wild and untended on Calafort, in the forest just beyond the Gallan.
When we were finished and sat idly chatting in the bow, Gaelin said, "We have an hour or so before we have to turn back, Orrin. Is that enough for you?"
He was on his feet instantly, grinning. "How can you doubt me?"
Rhetorical questions, it seems, have slipped through the cracks.
I watched as Orric sketched the visible coastline of the island. The outline done, he began shading the landmass—elevations, he said, when I asked what the different colors meant.
Eala said, "Orrin is a prodigy, when it comes to sight measurement. He has the eye. Watch, coming back he'll count the miles between here and Calafort." We laughed and Orrin protested, but I sensed that it was probably true.
Some time later, as I was beginning to doze in the sun, Eala stretched, groaned, and said, "There's time enough to bring home some food." I glanced at her, and she jerked her head at the water and said, "My favorite part of dualla. We brought the big nets."
Gaelin stayed aboard with Orrin, tracking the tides and the weather, and Eala and I leapt into the water together, each of us holding one end of the mesh net. As with the aodh islands, the style of netting suggests a casual but constant awareness of potential resource scarcity: its holes are large enough that only fully grown fish are caught, while the juveniles slip through and live to spawn another day.
We opened the net and held it spread between us, a span of some ten or fifteen feet. I took the side closer to the boat. Eala seemed to know the right moment to suddenly swim toward me with her end, trapping whatever had swum into our range, so I was left to enjoy the cool water and the late red sunlight, treading water and talking to Gaelin in the boat behind me. We did three or four net-closings this way, each time bringing in a respectable yield of fish.
Gaelin was telling me about a disastrous dualla that she and Eala had once gone on, when they were blown ashore by a storm onto a settled island. The inhabitants turned nasty very quickly when it was discovered that someone from Calafort had trounced someone from their community in a boat race several generations back. Gaelin did convincing impressions of most of the characters, including a dumbly confused Eala and Gaelin, and for a moment I thought that her next change in tone was just another part of the narrative.
In a low but carrying voice, very flatly, she said, "Come back in."
I looked back at her, and her face was stony, her breathing rapid. Then I glanced at Eala, who also seemed abruptly different. It didn't even occur to me to ask why.
Eala began to swim toward the boat, but swinging out in a wide circle, moving away from me. I had never seen anyone swim that way before: absolutely silent, controlled, the water closing behind her with only the barest of ripples. And still I wasn't frightened.
Orrin stood up slowly in the stern. The movement caught my eye so that I looked toward him across the width of the boat, and just beyond it something large was coming at us, its back barely submerged. As soon as I saw it, I felt it too, what Eala must have felt almost immediately: a kind of pressure in the water, a sense of encroaching mass.
Some of the bonfire stories mention the kyrban, a monster that sometimes overtakes crews on long voyages. I had thought it was a metaphor—seasickness, or stir-craziness, or hallucinatory dehydration. It wasn't. It was swimming toward us, with the unmistakable hypnotic grace of an apex predator.
Then three explosions detonated in the water, one after another.
Afterward, Orrin would explain to me what they were. First, preparing for the final assault, the kyrban breached. Eala, reacting instantaneously, changed direction in a burst of spray. And Gaelin leapt overboard.
The kyrban, Orrin told me, doesn't get "very large," perhaps half again as long as an adult Terran is tall. Seeing this one approach, I had been sure it was immense. One person against a kyrban is hopelessly outmatched, but two people stand a chance. Gaelin landed between it and Eala, turned, and slashed it in the eyes with a fish-cleaning knife.
All of this happened in seconds, and was over by the time I shouted.
So Orrin says, and I have no reason to doubt him. But for me, what happened was this: the water erupted, Orrin took hold of me under both arms and hauled me upward to safety, and the kyrban, drawn to my cry, passed so close under me that its back brushed the sole of my foot.
In the boat, all was strangely quiet. The kyrban had submerged, was gone. I was bleeding. Orrin calmly made me sit down and poured a numbing liquid onto my foot from a bottle, but his hands, rock-steady when he drew the wandering curve of a shoreline, were trembling. Gaelin was flecked with blood—the kyrban's, no one else's—and her face was terrible, but she began hauling in the anchor. And Eala—Eala, somehow, was the steadiest of us all. She helped Gaelin pull up the anchor and rev the motor, Gaelin touching her the entire time, their hips brushing and their hands together on the wheel.
"Stay down," Orrin was saying to me. "She cut you."
"She?" I gasped, forgetting propriety.
He almost dropped the blanket that he was tearing into strips. "The females are larger. Hold still."
"It didn't bite me," I said, transfixed by my bleeding foot.
"No," said Orrin, beginning to bind it so that I couldn't see. "They have denticles on their skin. Still enough to slice your foot open." He glanced at my face. "It's not that bad. It's a clean cut—in both senses of the word. It probably doesn't even hurt yet."
"It really doesn't," I said, with wonder.
He must have known that I was on the brink of shock. On the trip back he gave me several swigs from the bottle, which turned out be the drink that Connac had introduced me to in the Gallery. I got out of Orrin that it's called lotagh. People use it as an analgesic in small amounts, an intoxicant in moderate amounts, and an anesthetic in large amounts. I had a moderate amount.
Orrin and I were the only ones who spoke on the way back. Once we were underway, Eala used the rest of our water to rinse the blood off of Gaelin, who stayed wordlessly at the wheel.
It was dark by the time Calafort finally hove into view on the horizon, much later than people usually return from dualla. There was no bonfire; it had gotten colder. The tide was higher on the beach than I'd ever seen it. Something is changing; time does pass, here as everywhere. We could see Connac at the water's edge, and Eala shouted to him to bring out a raft. Duallem will flounder in under four feet of water, and Orrin said I shouldn't get my dressing wet.
Connac waded out, through the long shallows of high tide, and held the raft as I clambered on. Then he pushed several feet off from the boat, giving Gaelin room to maneuver and sail downshore toward the mooring area.
I watched them go. When I turned back toward shore, Connac was still standing chest-deep in water, holding the raft, just looking at me. Sometimes it amazes me, how he can ask that way.
"There was a kyrban," I said. "In the water with Eala and me." He winced and glanced reflexively at my foot. I was suddenly embarrassed. "It's all right. Just the denticles, Orrin says. It was going for Eala. Gaelin jumped in between them." Connac waited patiently. "I—I hadn't realized—I'd never seen one before."
"Mmm," he said. "It's been a long time since I have." Off my curious look, he smiled very slightly. "I don't go dualla anymore. There aren't as many monsters in the shallows." He was still looking at my swaddled foot. "Orrin's not much of a doctor." Asking again.
"Go ahead," I said. The lotagh was making me feel loose, warm, at ease. It was a pleasant change, around Connac. I stretched out my leg to him and leaned back on my palms.
Still he hesitated, as if confirming my permission. Then he reached out and took my leg firmly by the ankle, just above Orrin's dressing. It was only the second time anyone in the world had touched me, both times today: Orrin pulling me into the boat, and now this. Connac hands were nearly dry—their skin sheds water more quickly and efficiently than Terrans'—but like ice. I wondered if he'd been out on the beach all evening.
"We should go in first," I said. "Your hands are cold."
He laughed. "A little. Sorry. But I'm not." He fixed the raft in place with one elbow and began unwrapping the bandages. In spite of myself, I was impressed by how sharp the kyrban's skin must have been; there was still no pain, and no pain, and then all at once there was, and I hissed through my teeth and sat up and involuntarily grabbed Connac's wrist. He stopped working, but with a kind of delicacy didn't lift his head to look at my hand. I let go after a few steadying moments. My head spun a little, from the pain and the lotagh and the contact.
"Sorry. Sorry, I'm sorry, I—" He clicked his tongue, their verbal equivalent of a shrug. As he stripped away the last of the wrappings, I braced myself against the pain. "Eala and Gaelin," I began to say, looking for distraction, but wasn't sure how to proceed beyond that.
Connac's dark head stayed bent over my leg as he began to rewrap the cloth, more tightly this time.
"Yes," he said. "They are."
I remembered what Orrin had said. "They've found it."
"Yes. They've built theirs together."
I knew immediately what he meant. In my mind I saw the Gallery again with its oddly spaced shapes, gathered but separate, not touching. I hadn't seen Eala's and Gaelin's yet, but in that moment I knew: they touched. And I understood the Gallery, and how things worked beneath their surfaces, and—I think—why no one can ask you a question, or address you by your name, or touch you without permission. Because this is what you're meant to guard, to share with only one person, however long you have to wait: this intimacy. Eala and Gaelin's.
Neither of us spoke again. Connac finished tending to my foot, and then he brought me back to shore.
The day of the kyrban was the last time we saw real sunlight. The next morning the sky was like slate, and the ocean a mere reflection, so that the unlucky ones who had to go dualla came and went as if through a fissure in stone. The wind boomed endlessly, echoingly, in the rocky sea-level caves beneath the headland. The fire pit stayed cold, and no one visited the Gallery, where the shapes were stranded each time high tide sluiced across the narrow walkway of sand.
People have turned quieter, a little more solemn. I passed some time teaching Morel the most complex mathematical games and logical puzzles that I could remember from my youth—all the Terran children with whom I used to play them more than a hundred years dead—only to have her beat me resoundingly at everything. As of the current count, I have to cover her kitchen duty for fifty-nine weeks running. Orrin, too, rescued me from boredom by trying to instruct me in cartography. If nothing else, the hallways of the Gallan are now meticulously mapped. The more time we all spend inside, the more things seem to break or malfunction, so Connac is a constant background presence, keeping it all from going completely wrong. Indoors, he wears the lotagh flask strapped to his calf at all times. Lotagh is odorless, at least to my nose; it's nearly impossible to know when someone's been drinking it.
After breakfast today, I'd retreated to my room to start another (much-overdue) ansible report. It's no secret to anyone that I'm writing something. Moreover, I could walk into the common room in the middle of the day, paint Terran words on the walls with the sloppy leftovers of lunch, and the most anyone would say would be "I was going to eat that later." No one would ask. Still, if Morel ever glanced with interest at my insane, indecipherable nonsense, or if Orrin admired the alien aesthetic—if Connac ever looked at this and then at me, the way he does—I don't know what I would tell them.
I didn't notice it, at first. Even in the farthest-flung rooms of the Gallan, you spend your every waking moment obscurely comforted by the hum of humanity underlying your own silence: Gaelin galloping down the hall to the room next door, Eala murmuring as Gaelin joins her, your neighbor on the other side having sex, Morel singing to herself, the arrhythmia of Connac's gait, the unceasing whistle of boiling water in the kitchen, the common room full of laughter. I've become accustomed to it, this underground sound. When it began to rain, the metallic drizzle on the roof and the softer beat on the sand were—to me—indistinguishable from the rest.
But Morel saw to it that I didn't miss my first winter rain. Within a minute of the downpour's beginning, she stuck her head through my door. She didn't make a sound or come into the room (a major breach of etiquette, without permission), but I was instantly aware of her, the pressure shifts of her excitement.
I glanced up, and only then did she say, "Winterday!"
I stared at her for a moment, and then—"Oh! The rain."
She hid her expression of incredulity badly. "Yes, the rain, it's come early, everyone's already out in it, come on."
She hadn't exaggerated: the whole community spilled out of the Gallan into the gray, driving rain. Buckets were set out to collect the fresh water, and then people simply stood there, faces upturned, eyes and mouths open. For my part, I stayed in the lee of the Gallan, sheltered from the worst of the wind and wet: the observer, the Investigator. After all—I thought—in the final reckoning I had to acknowledge that they had just evolved along different lines than I had, and I couldn't be expected to understand everything of theirs, to enjoy getting drenched and drinking through every pore of my body. But then I thought: No. That's facile, Genly. Cynical. In the final reckoning we are all children of Hain, alone in the universe only for a moment in the grand scheme of time, and then—now—drawn inevitably back toward convergence, like tributaries that diverged millennia ago but tend always toward the same sea.
I think that's what everyone felt, standing out there in the rain together on my first Winterday.
Day Twenty-One, later
A doubly rich Winterday, says Morel. This evening the moiknem, the grown children whom Eala met on dualla in the fall, arrived at our shore. But then Morel is biased.
When a lone fisherman on the beach sighted the duall on the horizon, the rest of us were staying dry indoors, finishing the Winterday Move. I gathered from Morel that the outermost parts of the Gallan lose heat quickly, and so on Winterday the entire community alters its living arrangements. We leave our separate rooms, shut them up for the season, drag our beds into the common area, and spend the winter together in the warm, compact heart of Calafort.
The last of the beds were being moved when the news came from outside, and once again we all gathered in the rain and watched the children come in. The sea was rough, and the sailors' movements were weighted with exhaustion. Like us, they must not have expected the rains quite so early, or they wouldn't have set out, would have waited for next summer.
Then an odd thing happened. Most of the people on the beach turned around and dispersed. Whatever unspoken signal they received, I didn't register it, standing in the midst of the dwindling crowd. Eventually Gaelin passed and, taking pity on me—I think she, like not a few others, assumes that there's simply something not right with me—she said, "Their parents will bring them in. Not us."
"Morel isn't going back in," I pointed out, not understanding.
"I suppose she's missed her daughter," Gaelin said mildly. Without touching me, she expertly began to herd me away.
I don't know why it had never occurred to me. Morel is an adult. One of the youngest on the island, and possessed of an almost childlike frankness and gregariousness, but an adult. A stranger would never guess that I'm at least a century her senior. And I've never had a child.
Rather than going inside, Gaelin veered westward along the beach, and I followed her, punctuating her footprints with mine in the soggy sand.
"There's a good view from the dunes," she called. She didn't look back at me, but I could hear the smile in her voice when she added, "No one ever said we couldn't watch."
Others seemed to have had the same idea. A dozen or so people sat scattered over the sand, chatting to each other and keeping an eye on the reunion down the beach, waiting to greet the visitors publicly when the time came. In one trough between dunes, a little ways off, a man and a woman lay together under a tarp. It occurred to me clearly for the first time that we would all be sleeping in a single shared room all winter. I wondered how many babies are conceived out in the rain, and if the roar of the ocean in a storm sounds to them like a mother's heartbeat.
I must have stood there lost in my head for a minute or two, because when I looked back Gaelin had already chosen a place to lounge in the sand. From beside her, Connac nodded his greeting as I came up to them.
"—broken again," Gaelin was saying. "In the summer someone really ought to just sail out to Tinteyan and get a new one."
Connac made an affirmative noise. "Fixing it is starting to get a little monotonous."
They were talking about the kitchen radio, apparently a topic of endless fascination for everyone but me. There was a break in the conversation as all three of us glanced toward the group by the boats, and I commented to Gaelin, gambling for information, "You must miss yours, too."
I saw her regard me circumspectly, out of the corner of her eye, before she turned toward me with—there is no other way to describe it—a perfect hostess smile. The smile of someone accustomed to very delicate social maneuvering. But certainly it couldn't be offensive to guess that she'd had children at some point. It's a bisexual society, and the parents of a child need not have any lasting relationship. I couldn't imagine that I'd somehow cast aspersions on what Gaelin had with Eala.
"I haven't had mine yet," she said.
"You will, though," said Connac from the shadow of the dune.
She sat back and looked at him searchingly. Then she said, "I hope so. Maybe I'll try next winter, once Eala and I have talked about it more."
"Good," said Connac. "That would be good, to have both—Eala and your child."
"I would be very lucky," Gaelin said, her tone unreadable.
I was watching the group at the boats and listening to Connac and Gaelin, trying covertly to process both at once, to integrate them. They were doing a very careful dance, Connac and Gaelin, and I wasn't sure why. All I could think was that perhaps Gaelin wanted Connac to be the father of her child but, of course, couldn't ask him outright. But I didn't sense anything like that from either of them.
Divided between both scenes, I didn't see Eala approaching until she was among us, in the almost-warm hollow we'd made of the dune. She greeted me and Connac, but seemed loath to stay.
"Come inside," she said to Gaelin.
"I wanted to wait to see the children."
"They'll be hours, ishkeh," Eala told her, grinning. "Everyone has to come inside sometime." I was still trying to parse this—they'll be hours, water? hours in the water?—as Gaelin stood, brushing sand from the backs of her legs.
"'Night, comrades," Gaelin said jauntily. "Report to us in the morning on everything you see." And she and Eala trudged toward the Gallan, chuckling, gently jostling each other.
I sat back in the sand. Connac was very quiet. When I looked at him, he wasn't quite looking at me. I wondered if he'd had any children, and if he'd seen them grow up.
The silence between us grew. At length, I said, "The day I went dualla with them. In the morning, you said the rain was five or six days off. Winterday came early this year. But you knew to the day."
He shifted his weight and said simply, neutrally, "It hurts. When the pressure drops."
Well, I thought unhappily, dead end in that direction.
Connac moved again, unfastening the flask from his leg, the one we could both look at. He took a drink, just a slight backward flick of the head, and offered it to me. When I shook my head, he regarded it intently, holding it between us.
"It's harvested from taghem," he said. "The fish. They carry it in a sac on the roof of the mouth. All a tagh has to do is bite once—catch hold once—and the sac opens, and the prey fish is stunned. That way there's no struggling, and less danger of the tagh's being injured and taken itself by a bigger fish." He clicked his tongue. "Well. It's a cruel ocean." He took another, longer drink, and put the flask away. When he finished, he caught my eye. "It's a painkiller, you know."
"I know," I said.
For a moment I wished that Gaelin and Eala had stayed, or that Morel weren't busy with her daughter. Connac, I thought, is not the one whom any Investigator in his or her right mind would want to make first contact with. Much better a genial Morel, or an energetic Gaelin. Through them, you make contact with everyone, an ever-widening circle of socialization. You make treaties and truces that way; you invite a world into the Ekumen that way. Being with Connac is like being in a tunnel. You sense that possibly you can go deep, but never wide.
I stood and began shaking off sand, only then realizing that I was drenched, and that in fact the rain had gone on and on, had been falling on us all that time. I was the only one likely to be bothered by it. Down the beach, the family pairings were finally leaving the waterline.
"Let's go in," I said. "Even they're taking cover." I watched them for a moment, picking out Morel's familiar shape leaning against another woman. "I had no idea Morel was missing her daughter all this time."
Connac got up laboriously.
"Sometimes," he said, his voice tight, "you hardly even seem mereswine."
I stopped moving. I'd never heard that voice before.
He went very still too. He was wincing a little, from what pain I couldn't tell, but still he didn't look at me.
"Sorry," he said, after a moment. And I couldn't ask why.
Ansible Document 01-01101-944-8-WX114
The arrival of the moiknem has been a stroke of luck, anthropologically speaking. Gathered in just a day, mostly from Morel and her daughter Liak:
Sexual maturity is reached at approximately age ten. (N.B.: Due to the nature of WX-114's orbit, its years are roughly a third again as long as Earth's.) People—of both sexes?—exert some kind of hormonal control, so that accidental pregnancies are unheard of. Fertility is at its highest in the winter and early spring, an adaptation that results in most children's being born in the late summer and early fall, when the climate is most forgiving and resources most abundant.
A surprisingly large majority of the population has had children, at least on Calafort. As in Morel's case, some people conceive not long after maturity is reached. By the age of thirty (WX-114 years), some eighty to ninety percent of the group seems to have reproduced.
Crucially, each woman can bear only one child in her lifetime. From Morel's attitude I gather that birth is a (physically?) traumatic process; additionally, female hormonal levels change significantly afterward, resulting in sterility. Men are not thus restricted but rarely have more than two children, and the number of fertile females in any given generation is a limiting factor as well. Possibly a population-control adaptation left over from the Ice Age years?
I still have yet to see any evidence of parental union. The father of Morel's child lives on another island, and this seems neither surprising nor regrettable to anyone, least of all Morel herself. She remembers his name and speaks of him with fondness and no passion. When a woman decides that she wants to have a child, she goes out in search of a similarly prepared man. It's never a man in her community, meaning that all prospective mothers must go moilla. (Moi-, root for child; -lla, suffix for sea travel.) This explains at least partly the importance of the daily dualla: to visit nearby islands and get to know their inhabitants.
The parents decide before the birth who will raise the child. After all, once a person has gone asgalla early in life, he or she remains with the new chosen community permanently, so there can be no cohabitation between parents. The mother is the child-rearer slightly more frequently, since she has only the one opportunity. However, the maternal instinct is by no means universal, and in many cases a woman intentionally chooses a man who wants to raise a child. At least on Calafort, mothers compose slightly over sixty percent of the childrearing population.
Unsurprisingly, the terms "mother" and "father" have no equivalents here. There is only one word, the neuter caerd, which means "parent."
As noted before, all children eventually leave their birth island to choose an adult home and community, a shift marked by the terminology change, moil to moikna. There is no specific age for this, but it never happens before ten and almost always by fifteen.
The bond between parent and child—even after the eventual separation—seems to be the strongest available social linkage. Hence no words for any other relationships, from "grandparent" or "cousin" to "friend" or "neighbor." There isn't even the concept of "brother" or "sister," since due to the nature of procreation, full-blooded siblings do not exist. Only children and parents are recognized by name. Also, only children and parents call each other by name—that is, children and parents, and people like Eala and Gaelin. The child you raise and the friend* you choose.
*Not "friend," of course. As far as I know, no one has ever uttered the actual word for it in my presence.
Ansible Document 01-01101-944-9-Mereswine
Unrelated miscellany, same day as the previous:
There's a sort of ambiguity about the precise denotation(s?) of ishkeh. It seems obviously to refer to standing water—except for when it doesn't. Rain is also ishkeh, and I'm fairly certain that in a story today, the ishkeh that Gaelin referred to was a hailstorm.
It also seems to have something to do with the parent-child bond. Morel occasionally addresses Liak as ishkeh. It's somehow both personal and generic: Orrin has a visiting son whom he also calls ishkeh, but neither he nor Morel refer to anyone else's child that way.
The rain hasn't let up. I can't tell if it's exaggeration or literal truth, but Morel says that there's always ishkeh "for the whole winter." But if ishkeh is also rain and hail, and who knows what else, quite possibly it means any kind of precipitation.
Apparently winter, and particularly the periods when it's cold enough to discourage all but the most necessary trips outside, is the only time when infectious disease makes any real inroads into the community. All illnesses during this time are called simply "winter disease," giveru, which I initially interpreted as "cabin fever." Eala, who recently quarantined herself for two days in her frigid room with a flu-like ailment, set me straight on the subject.
The word for the sun (only now referred to, when it's missed) is coalan. It's the first word I've heard for anything more specifically cosmological than bokna-sky.
Finally elicited the word they use for their world, from Gaelin: Mereswine. This planet is Mereswine.
As with ishkeh, the word seems to do at least triple work. It's also the singular noun for a native of the planet, which in practice just means "person." And it's an adjective that means, in their frame of reference, "human."
The ocean has frozen over.
Everyone else seems almost as surprised as I am. Gaelin says it happens rarely, although everyone seems to have seen it at least once in his or her lifetime. Last winter, she says, it was almost cold enough, and a ring of ice formed all along the island's shoreline, but nothing like this, this sheer, vast sheet gleaming bluish in the fitful light. Someone went out on it early this morning, and reported at breakfast that it's "a good freeze," meaning that it can hold an adult's weight some distance from shore. Eala claims that once, when she was a child, the ocean froze so deep that people continued going dualla all winter, journeying on foot across the plain of ice.
But this isn't quite as good a freeze as that. The scout said that about a mile out, he began to hear creaking; the ice gets progressively thinner the farther you go. In other words, too much ice to cross the ocean by boat, but not enough to cross it by foot. So the moiknem are stranded here for the time being.
I say "stranded," but of course their parents are overjoyed, and no one else seems to mind. People have to double up in beds casually now, not just in pairs who have "built theirs together," as Orrin said. (Sex never seems to occur in the common room. I couldn't imagine where people were going—this being the season when most children are conceived, after all—until one afternoon I saw two people going together into one of the closed-off rooms. Since then, I've come back into mine when I need to write during the day, working until my fingers get numb.) No one has come to my bed, and I'm relieved. Even if there's no question of sex, my notion of "platonic" may still differ from theirs. And yet I'm also, irrationally, a little stung, that in this one area I'm still on the outskirts.
It's cold enough, now, to justify dipping into our indoor stores of tea leaves and lotagh. During the day, most people drink cup after cup of searing tea; at night, they dilute the lotagh in hot water and drink a little after dinner. Something in the lotagh sweetens when heated sufficiently, and it tastes much better this way than straight. Since last night, when the temperature plummeted, pots of water have been boiling constantly over every available heat source. The kitchen feels tropical, and occasionally you find someone asleep in a corner, napping in the warmest and wettest room in the Gallan. I saw Orrin's son curled up early in the morning, and Connac sitting with his back against the wall, his bad leg stretched out, his flask-leg bent up nearly to his chest.
Most of us spent the majority of today's daylight out on the ice, working in alternating shifts. Especially in a freeze as deep as this, it's imperative to make and maintain holes in the ice—the word could be translated as "wells"—to replenish our stores of water and fish. When my first shift came, I went out to the "well line," designated at half a mile out so as not to weaken the ice nearest the shore. There I found Morel and Liak widening a small hole with mallets and spikes.
I joined them and fell into conversation with Liak. In general, the younger the person, the less deeply ingrained the habit of privacy is, and the more forthcoming he or she is with information. From Liak, I've been learning what other island communities are like—to wit, not very different from this one.
About an hour later, another fresh shift arrived, and another of the moiknem, Sruth, replaced Liak. I had just begun talking to him when I saw Connac coming toward us. With nothing to break up the monolithic ice—like walking on pure light, this far out—except the blurred gray shape of Calafort in the distance, people show up incredibly distinct and discrete, as though they have nothing to do with anything else in the world. I stopped talking and watched Connac approach.
"Good day for well-work," he said.
Morel introduced him to Sruth. I didn't say anything.
Connac looked at me. "We ought to start some new wells in this area. About twenty paces from this one, I thought, to start." The inflection in his voice was as close to interrogative as I'd yet heard on Mereswine.
I nodded and followed him. He chose the spot and traced a circle, about two feet in diameter, in the ice with his foot.
"It never froze, where I lived before," I said, feeling my way. "I don't actually know how to… to break through the…."
He emptied out his pack beside the circle: two lever-based tools, like mechanized shovels with long, rectangular, sharp-edged heads carved of hardest rock crystal. With a grunt, he drove the first one deep into a point on the circle's perimeter.
"Ishkeh," he said, and began working the lever.
I could hear snatches of Morel and Sruth's conversation, but we worked in an absolute though not unpleasant silence, the only sound the grinding of gears and the clean squeak of the blades. It was hard work, and Eala had said that in a freeze like this, a single well could take a two-person team days to complete.
After half an hour or so, I had an idea. As if naturally continuing the conversation, I said, "On the island where I was born, we called it something different."
"Hmm," said Connac, battling the ice.
"I mean, not just a different word from yours. It had different names depending on its state: 'ice' for frozen, 'rain' for liquid weather, 'water' in the ocean…."
He cocked an eye at me. "Well, that doesn't make any sense, does it."
I was immediately irritated at myself for driving this unnecessary cultural wedge between us. As if I hadn't been working constantly to integrate myself for the past three weeks. But I was irritated at Connac, too, for responding, and at his impossible, imperturbable singularity, an embrace of separateness and self-sufficiency that seemed extreme even in a Mereswine.
"It makes more sense," I countered. He looked at me again, curiously at first, then blankly as he got wind of my mood.
"They're all the same," he said.
I wanted to say, You hypocrite. Your culture is just your cover. Everyone else here connects; no one else draws people in with the promise of intimacy and then shuts them out. You don't think anyone is like anyone else. You don't believe what everyone else believes, that the whole world, human and natural alike, is intricately, flawlessly fractal: every state of water constitutive of and identical to the ideal platonic ishkeh, every person a planet in miniature. If you had been my first contact here, I would have given up before I started. I would have turned around, I would have called for a ship to come take me away, and I would have told the Ekumen not to waste a good First Mobile on a hopeless case like Mereswine, because if everyone here were like you, this world would never hold out a hand to the rest of humanity.
Instead, I said, with cool precision, "Yes, of course they're the same. But practically, it would be useful to have different words to describe different relevant properties. When it falls from the sky, it's immediately drinkable; when it's in the ocean, it isn't. When it's liquid, you know how to move in it. When it's frozen, it's solid, but you can't tell how solid, it can break, you can fall th—"
Connac carefully put his tool down on the ice, and called across to Morel and Sruth. "Someone needs to replace me on this well. We're still chipping at the first layer."
Sruth raised his head. "If it's shift switch, you should go in too," he said to Morel. She made a slight movement with one hand and didn't move. And Connac walked away.
I stood watching him recede into the hazy, crystallized distance, back toward home. After a while, Morel said to Sruth, "Take this well on your own for now, and you can go in when the next shift comes." She walked across to my well, and I heard her pick up Connac's tool at the edge of the circle.
"I'm good at boring out new ones," she said. "If you don't mind the company."
I turned to face her. It took every ounce of self-restraint I had not to ask her for explanation or reassurance. Eventually I settled for "I shouldn't have— I still thought it was a friendly debate."
She sighed and hefted the tool. "Connac," she said, her voice too low for Sruth's range of hearing. Looking toward Calafort, she said, "Connac's son died last winter."
The verb pashkeh, "to die," relies, as so many Mereswine words do, on ishkeh as a root. As far as I've been able to work out, pashkeh literally translates to something like "to submerge" or—slightly closer—"to dive deeply." The suggestion of water is inherent in every death; that doesn't literally mean that every death is the ocean's doing. But something made me glance down at my tool still embedded, handle upright, in the circle. Minor details, minor evasions, coalesced for me, covalent as hydrogen and oxygen. Connac's son had fallen through the thin ice.
"That's why we have the half-mile rule now," said Morel, almost as if we'd mindspoken. "Sruth was surprised. His Gallan doesn't enforce any such thing."
"No," I said, leaning on my handle, hearing the blade's shrill friction against the ice; "no, mine didn't either."
She cleared her throat. "Connac went, ah, over the headland."
I looked up at her. Like the Terran phrase "over the edge"?
"He went over the headland," I repeated.
"The Calafort headland. The ice came before Winterday; that hadn't happened here before. It didn't stay cold enough for very long. Connac was up on the headland, scouting the beach for a place to make his. He's like me, usually late to it." Her mouth moved in the memory of a smile. "His son was starting a well, close to shore, so that Connac could." She shook her head roughly. "Watch him the whole time."
I let that settle between us for a moment. "I see."
She gestured vaguely downward. "So." She looked at my uncomprehending face. "So the leg."
"I see," I said again, though I wasn't sure I did.
"We heard the ice snap all the way up in the Gallan. The acoustics of the cliff rocks, they're—" She waved a hand: it doesn't matter. "So did Connac. So he went the most direct way to the well."
"Over the headland," I said.
"Over the headland," she said.
Overnight, it snowed.
Ansible Document 01-01101-944-10-Mereswine
Down with winter disease. No report.
These past few days, for the first time since I arrived on Calafort, I've been grateful that no one ever requires an explanation for anything, from anyone.
We woke up that morning to find snow on the ground, and light flurries still coming down. Nothing extraordinary, just a dusting. A laughable amount of snow, to anyone who's ever been to Winter. But the world was everywhere inescapably white, and everyone was excited, snowfall being an extremely rare event here.
I ventured out into it with Gaelin and Eala. I was numb. The cold here, too, is laughable in comparison to Winter's. It wasn't the cold. I had the sense that I moved an inch or two above the ground, loosed from gravity. But I watched, as we picked our way down the beach, and my feet were there, still there.
I remember hearing Eala, a pace ahead of me, still hoarse from her bout of winter disease, saying with awe in her voice, "I've never seen it before."
I remember looking up, meaning to draw her out enough to test my theory, that "snow" would be ishkeh as well.
I remember seeing, over her shoulder, a woman running through the snow and onto the ice, where she slid gracefully, flat-footed, like a skier.
And she, or he, or neither or both, hurled herself again toward the fence, toward the border of a foreign land. This time he didn't vanish in an upsurge of red snow, but kept going, across the Ice, pulling the sledge ahead at the very limit of visibility, compact, contained, tireless, whittled down to his last human intention, which was simply to save all of us except himself, walking and walking into the blank whiteness as though he could do it forever, not looking back, and there was no telling where the next crevice was, what he might disappear into. She came through a side door into the king's anteroom, saw me for the first time, and knew me. He stood sweating beside me on a hot spring day in Erhenrang as we watched the joining of our first shared bridge. She looked at me across the battlefield of Commensal Slose's dinner table, giving nothing away. He stayed behind in the walled garden of the Corner Red Dwelling as I walked away from him, cursing his perfidy, just before the mad king turned on us both. She woke up with me in hiding not far from Pulefen Farm, a brief window between sleep and sleep, both of us slow and stunned with thangen and veridical drugs. He flinched at my mindspeech every time I reached out, and every time he accepted it with full awareness of all the pain that I could cause him. In the tent, in the last illumination of the Chabe stove, she wrote her journal in a language I could barely read for a Hearth I'd never seen, he silently helplessly inexorably sang his kemmer in my head like a plucked wire, she lay with her face turned toward to the wall, away from the light. He plunged downhill, speed as pure and blurred as the snow, toward the fence, toward the guns, toward the darker country, and away from me.
And then Eala and Gaelin had hold of me, one on each arm, and I was in my bed in the common room, and everything stopped.
I briefly woke that evening. When I opened my eyes, the lamps over my head burst into gunfire. I closed my eyes again and didn't get up.
For days, someone on dinner duty silently put a plate of food on the floor beside my bed. Without comment, others made sure that there was always a cup of something hot within reach. I left the food and the lotagh, but drank the tea until I could smell nothing but steeped herbs. Everyone brought everything, and no one asked anything.
One day, Connac, tracking melting snow across the floor, was the one who delivered the tea. I wondered if he'd been assigned a shift.
"You don't have winter disease," he said, a half-certainty tending toward a question.
He was the first one who'd said anything to me. My stomach turned over, and I thought I might hate him.
"No," I said.
He nodded, satisfied, and left me alone again.
That night everyone drifted into the common room around the usual time and bedded down. The susurrus of their breath was all around me, like the stirring of dry leaves, and I closed my eyes and tried not to remember what two people breathing in a tent up on the Gobrin Ice on Winter sounded like. The bed dipped slightly beneath me. I opened my eyes to find Connac lying curled in the space at my side, his back to me, his breathing ragged with shivering.
I froze. Some kind of awareness drifted through me, and became a wave of pure anger. So that was why he'd wanted to know if I was sick. Because he was cold in a bed by himself, but first he needed to know that I wasn't contagious.
He felt me grow rigid. Eventually he said, "It's cold tonight."
"No, it's not," I said. I hadn't been cold in a long time. I turned over, facing away from him.
He hesitated. "Colder than I'm used to," he said. "Winter's usually warmer. It was last year."
That stopped me. I didn't speak. Neither did he. I could hear his teeth chattering.
"Go to sleep," I told him finally.
After an hour or so, his body relaxed, he was still, he slept. But the bed kept vibrating. I tried to stay absolutely motionless, to discover where it was coming from. When I stopped, the bed stopped. When I realized that, I started shaking harder. I pressed closer to Connac, not touching him but seeking the radiation of him, of something beyond his body heat. It flashed through my head then that I didn't care about his motivations. It didn't matter to me if he was concerned about my health for itself or if he just wanted to sleep here.
I had never been so cold in my life. It kept coming and coming, a great cascading liquid rush, the way I imagine it will be on Winter—or perhaps already is; so much time has passed for them there, since I left across the lightyears—when the Ice Age finally ends and the glaciers begin to thaw. In its wake, as it receded, I could feel everything, every piece of flotsam and jetsam that had been held in subzero stasis until that moment. And then I wept for Estraven.
This morning there was no smell of breakfast wafting in from the kitchen. Just the eternal tea. The room was dim, limned with a pinkish light diffused through the window coverings, and everyone was still in bed. It was very early. Connac was gone.
When I rolled over, he was sitting on the floor beside the bed with two steaming cups.
His face didn't change. He passed me one and began to drink his own. To have an excuse to stay silent a little longer, I downed mine in a few rapid gulps. Connac, noncommittal, held out his hand for the empty cup.
I set it down on the bed between us, where he had slept. Mindspeech might be completely latent in the Mereswine, or vestigial, or strictly forbidden as the ultimate violation of selfhood. The Council prohibits its use by First Investigators.
So I didn't bespeak him. Lying there motionless, the cup between us, I simply moved closer to his radiation. There was no contact, no crowding. Just proximity, in case there was some old, old part of him that could remember and respond to it.
"Connac," I said, and he visibly flinched, but kept his hand out, his eyes on me. I took his hand and asked him, "What's the word for this?"
He breathed in. "Ishkeh," he said, and didn't let go for a long time.
For a while I slept again, into the late morning. Now almost everyone is up, finishing breakfast and scheduling the day's well-making shifts. Out on the ice somewhere, just in sight of shore, there's a shallow circle waiting. No one has returned to it yet; no one's broken through. I'll ask Connac what we do next.
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every
man is a piece of the continent, a part of
the main. . . . any man's death diminishes
me, because I am involved in mankind."
—John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions