On the planet of Gethen, sometimes called Winter, it is always Year One. Even on that unchanging world, everything is always beginning.
Genly has restarted his life now many times over. On new planets, among new peoples. Stepping lightly from world to ship to world again. The dizziness of NAFAL travel: old friends and places falling away in a few moments, grown old or gone or changed beyond recognizing.
He has changed too: grown wiser, a bit. Much older than the boy of 20-some years who landed on Gethen as the First Mobile that planet had seen. But no matter where he goes, no matter how the years fly by, it is still always Year One. A piece of him is still always lying awake in the darkness of a small tent on the vast Gobrin Ice of a distant planet. Listening to the breathing of someone who is by now very long dead.
From the Archives of Hain. Letter from Genly Ai, Mobile of the Ekumen, to Eng Mi Aldana, Researcher.
I am an old man now. Not terribly old, not frail and pitiable. But old enough to live many of my hours in the land of regrets, that terrible and changeless country that is host to those nearer the end of their lives than the beginning. Perhaps by telling this now my regrets will lighten by some small shade.
I did not tell everything. Call it a betrayal of my vows as a Mobile of the Ekumen. An unforgivable omission and a selfish choice to deprive the other peoples of the Ekumen of the full weight of my experience.
The truth is I was ashamed.
I was ashamed and confused: ashamed by my own poor and shortsighted behavior, my own inability to meet the world and people of Gethen on their own terms. Confused by the strange new things I learned about myself and my true friend Estraven in those weeks as we crossed the ice.
My report was true: lest you fear I've spared myself too much. What I told was the full accounting of my failings in both Karhide and Orgoreyn. My failings in understanding Estraven's regard and sacrifices for me. My failings in fully comprehending the reality of their being, of kemmer, of people who were both man and woman and neither.
What I've omitted was something even more private that happened between us. Perhaps I kept it because it did not feel fully mine to tell. Who would wish to betray the secrets of the dead? And Estraven of course never mentioned anything of it in the journals from that long and improbable journey.
But you asked if I could share any details that might help you better understand the peoples of Gethen as you prepare to live among them at the Embassy in Erhenrang. And perhaps this will help.
As I reported in my ansible transmissions from Gethen, I had some success in teaching mindspeech to Therem Estraven, my ally and companion on that bitterly cold world. It frightened him mightily but he persisted with it despite that. He said once it felt like having swallowed too large a bite of food, the pressing discomfort of it in the throat long after it's left.
But he wanted very much to learn. So we pressed forward into the land of mindspeech just as we did across the ice, progressing a little more each day.
Mostly we spoke at night, in our sleeping bags after the stove light had been turned down, he on his side of the tent and I on mine. There was a simplicity and straightforwardness to those conversations that I don't think our real speech ever matched. It is something I have felt when using mindspeech with others, though never so strongly, that closeness in the language where lies are impossible.
I have spoken of how eager Estraven was to learn about other worlds, other peoples. His curiosity was limitless and this is how we began: he asking a question about my life or other worlds, and me answering it, speaking the words carefully into his mind.
Perhaps it was the nature of communicating that way, or that it happened in the dark, but we spoke then of things we never discussed in the light. Many of his question were personal: my family, how I was raised on Terra, the foods we ate, my earliest memories, why I had chosen to come here.
I answered in mindspeech and slowly we began to develop that secondary level of communication that experienced mindspeakers accomplish, the transmission and reading of images, feelings, scenes remembered.
With time he spoke more as well: at first responses to my own stories, then slowly recollections of his own. These too were personal: about his parent of the flesh, his youth in the Hearth of Estre, though even then he kept some things to himself, cut stories short, or lapsed into ruminating silence.
It was here that I began to understand even more what I had already seen that night of Estraven's kemmer: the full force of what I would call his femaleness, that thing I had denied all along. It happened most when he spoke of his children, especially the child of his flesh. The images came as flickering backdrops to the stories he told: lying awake to look at the moon, his belly grown large, feeling the child kick inside. Nursing that same child, who stared at him with a fierce, unblinking gaze as it sucked. His other children, those he had not borne but sired, how they laughed when they were small; their round, brown bodies. The heavy weight of a child in his lap, leaning sleepily against him in the lamplight as the adults laughed. It was nothing like what I had thought I knew of him before, yet still unmistakably filtered through the lens of Estraven's own self.
The second time he went into kemmer there on the ice we were far more practiced at speaking to each other mind to mind, sharing stories and feelings. Perhaps because of that I realized what was happening earlier this time, as a strange distance and awkwardness grew between us. Not knowing what to do, I myself grew awkwarder still, tried hard to keep a solemn distance between us, clumsily jerked away if our gloved hands touched while we were in harness pulling the sledge through the vicious white cold. I could not have been less gracious if I tried, though my motives were nothing but well meant.
For several days we spoke little by mouth and not at all by mind. Estraven had closed in on himself, fighting some difficult, internal battle.
Then one night, as I was skimming the surface of sleep's dark sea, bone weary and still hungry, I heard his voice in my mind.
"Genry --" it said, then stopped, but it was enough. In opening his mind to me he had allowed a flood of images and feelings to come rushing through our connection.
Through his eyes I saw myself as he saw me: very dark, tall and strangely thin, and overwhelmingly male. Not masculine -- I make no claim to that. But male in a way that wanted a female answer, that drew out a deep echo of desire within him. It was terrifying, that desire, the force of it. That he could control it speaks more to his willpower than anything else he did in that long, harrowing journey.
And without even thinking something answering rose inside me. A desire which had been there all along, secret and ignored. It throbbed through the darkness between us, and I know he must have felt it in return. I heard, I think, the softest of exhalations from his side of the tent. No other words were spoken between us, by either mouth or mind. But I know I stayed awake in that darkness a long, long time, feeling the throb of feeling between us: his own need, my answering want.
Nothing else occurred between us, though I have imagined it many times: the help I could have given him, but did not. The deeper closeness which almost was between us, and now will never be.
So why keep this secret, you ask? I have no answer, other than that I was young and ashamed and heavy with grief at the death of Theren, my friend and more than a friend. Perhaps in keeping it to myself I sought to maintain some kind of closeness between us, the intimacy of lovers to which I had no rightful claim: that right of private knowledge. It was, after all, the only thing I had left of him.
On the planet called Winter it is always Year One. Always that beginning that comes again: end after end after end.