When we set down for camp that night, I confessed my ailment to Estraven. I was not afraid of my weakness, nor was I ashamed; I only worried for our journey ahead, if I could lose sight in one of my eyes so easily. No, that is not entirely true; I did also feel embarrassed, a child in the mastery of snow and ice, to have wounded myself so gravely, so easily, at first without even my knowledge or notice. I had only realized it when I turned to look to the side for the first time in an hour or more, and found half the landscape disappeared.
We made camp, and dinner, and I told Estraven. He looked at first stricken, and then stared more intently at my face, studying its features. Under his gaze, hard and probing, I did truly feel like a child.
“Perhaps your eye is only frozen shut-- can you move it?”
I shook my head. “I can't feel anything there. It may be dead.” I did my best not to let my voice waiver in fear. One dead eye is better than both gone, and Estraven had starved for me, risked death for me, stolen and ran, all for me; I had no right to show fear.
In retrospect, I realize this was more in the spirit of that masculine pride that for Estraven I had been trying to ignore. But at the time, it kept me from fear, or worse, something I thought would worsen my condition exponentially: tears.
But Estraven had no such qualms, though he did look strangely grave, his brow perpetually furrowed. This was not as it usually was; while he was a serious fellow, he was not morose, even in the face of ice and death such as this. But he seemed hardened today, fearful and reserved. Perhaps ocular injuries are an ill omen in the Handdaran religion, or perhaps he was as ashamed of my weakness as I was. It did not occur to me to think that perhaps he was worried for my sake.
“A lack of feeling is a symptom of freeze,” he said, still grimacing. “Perhaps... well.” It was not like him to mince words, and I slowly began to worry. Perhaps this was some attempt at shifgrethor, or another incomprehensible Gethenian ritual which he assumed I knew and at which I could only balk. “To know anything of the intensity of it, I'll have to unfreeze it. To keep it from dying, if it hasn't. I've wasted enough time already; lie down.”
And now, a prophesy fulfilled, I balked. But I trusted my friend also, and reminded myself of this, calling him by the name I had been allowed. “All right, Harth.”
I laid down atop my bag, and Estraven crawled over to me in the tent, bent over my face. He touched my eye, and I did not feel it, and he then knelt over me as if in prayer, cupped his hands around the dead eye. He began breathing into it, then, warming it with his hands and tongue. It was a deeply odd experience, strange and alien and inexplicably intimate. It was also deeply absurd, to have another man's tongue on one's eye, his lips hovering over my frozen lashes; I found myself on the verge of laughter. Out of respect for Estraven, committing an act he seemed to find distasteful, I kept myself quiet.
His hands were rough, but gentle with the tenderness of one committed to efficiency. I found his breath putrid, as one would of a man who has not bathed in months, and endured awful weather and stress and sweat often if not constantly throughout that time. And how could I fault him? Surely mine was just as poisonous. All this made it worse, infinitely more silly, less dignified for a man like Estraven, who seemed, at times, composed of nothing but dignity. Dignity and caution.
He was not cautious, now. Finally, I could move my eye. I opened it, and did not see, and hardly felt. Still Estraven breathed warm air, let his tongue find my eye, and massaged my skin with gentle fingers. I did not speak or move, unsure of the etiquette in such a singularly strange action as this. I was beginning to feel more and more, though I could not see-- to be sure, I kept my seeing eye closed, in hope that my sight would return from sheer force of will-- and Estraven continued to breathe. As I felt more, my eye twitched, and I felt Estraven's lips on my eyelashes, kissing them, and then, finally, a kiss to the corner of my eye, very cold. Strange, odd, but perhaps some Gethenian ritual. Of course, I knew little of how kisses were meant outside of kemmer.
Though it only added to the absurdity of the movement, and at last I squirmed, and moved, and our lips met. Estraven kissed me with an enthusiasm I could not call chaste.
I still do not know why I kissed back.
It was strange, and also joyous. Our teeth knocked together more than once, and the angle was bad. It was difficult to stay still, and hard to breathe; it was not easy, but neither was it difficult enough to make either of us stop. I did not hunger for this, not sexually-- I had cut myself off from that so thoroughly in mind and action since I had come to Gethen that no mere kiss could reawaken the need in me. No, instead I kissed Estraven as a friend, in that tent in the snow, with cold ice-water dribbling from my dead, unseeing eye.
I do not know how long we kissed. I do know that I found myself almost disappointed when it ended, though I do not know with who, or why. From the expression on Estraven's face-- and there, another oddity-- I began to suspect a cause.
Estraven was breathing heavily. His face was colored red. His hair clung to his face, lustrous and stuck with sweat-- absurd, in this climate, but I had to keep myself from laughing for his sake-- his brows stuck in a heavy point. I saw then all the signs I'd missed in my ignorance: the new curve of his hips, the slight, almost imperceptible swell of his chest.
A woman: harsh and unbeautiful, but unmistakably a woman. The childish joy that had been in me before dissolved.
He said, “I am sorry.”
“No...” I said, for I knew not what else to say. Was there protocol for this, on Gethen? Etiquette? I knew what I would say to a woman in this situation, but not a man. And then I remembered with something like fear: no, Estraven was both.
“I had intended to stay away from you, to ask not to touch.” Estraven was sitting still again, stiff and straight-backed.
“Yes,” I said. “Poor timing on my part. I am sorry.”
“You hardly did it on purpose.”
“I mean to offer condolences.” I thought Estraven's state must have been something of a shame, to him.
“Yes, of course...” he said, and I thought what such a thing as this might do to a man. Estraven looked over at me, on the other side of our tent, and I realized with a dreadful certainty that some part of him, no matter how small or incongruous with his regular personality, desired me.
I put the thought from my mind.
We sat in silence for a moment, a moment longer, and Estraven asked, his voice hoarse and throaty: “Can you see?”
“No,” I said, glad of a change of subject.
“Then we should sleep,” he said. “If you cannot see by morning, it is dead.” And with that, he turned off the stove, and the light was out, all suddenness.
I attributed this to the unknowable mysteries of kemmer, and crawled inside my bag to sleep. In the night, I heard Estraven breathing less softly than usual, and perhaps it was fitful dreams, or his own confused desires. I did him the best courtesy I could, as I had done in the school dorms as a child, and ignored the possibility of masturbation. Of course, I reminded myself, thanks to my masculine hormones, Estraven was a woman in body, and so even that sense of completion was denied him. I did not feel pity-- how can one feel pity for something so disconnected from themselves as this?-- but I did feel blame. I had, after all, kissed him back, and perhaps kept that kiss longer than it should have gone.
And in the morning, I could see again from both eyes. I said as much to Estraven, who nodded curtly, and I hoped for his sake that this kemmer would be short.
That day, which was filled with pushing and then pulling the sled through wet and heavy snow-- a monotonous task in the extreme-- I thought on the subject of my blame. I had not been in kemmer. I had been fully responsible for my actions, not pushed to some feminine extreme of need and suffering. When we sat down again, the next night, I attempted to make my apology known to us both.
So after dinner I spoke: “Estraven,” I said, “last night, I...” I could already see Estraven shaking his head.
He said, “tomorrow,” and I thought I knew what he meant. A blow, to lose one's control, or find it in danger. Tomorrow, then, we would talk on this sensitive matter, and so, that next day, we did. He even had the courtesy to begin the conversation. “You were going to speak of the other day?” How benign a way to put it.
I found him much refreshed, after kemmer had left him. His mood was less restrained; he seemed calmer, more at ease. I attempted to do him the courtesy he had done me, today, and speak with that same relaxed strength.
“I want to apologize for my actions,” I said, just as I had practiced in my head for two days now.
But Estraven only moved his hand in the short dismissive sweep so common in Karhide, and shook his head. That gesture, to shake one's head from side to side, he had learned from me. Absurdly, I felt proud.
Estraven continued, “no, I began it. I had hoped to get through kemmer without such displays, but if I had stalled, your eye would have died.” He looked at it now, and seemed relieved. Seeing such an expression on his face was, in return, a great relief to me. “How is it?”
“Fine, fine,” I said, touching it now. I saw perfectly well, and no longer felt the eye ache from cold. “But I do owe you an apology...”
Estraven's expression bent into a gentle frown. “I had thought that which I received was given in friendship.” And I wondered, not for the first time, if the shifgrethor was not so easy to put aside as I had thought it. Though how I had harmed it was unknown to me.
I could speak the truth, though, as Estraven did. “Yes,” I said. I know I had done so in friendship. That, and love, and that familiar kind of platonic joy I'd become accustomed to, the kind that grew between friends the like of which we had become.
“Then I fail to see how an apology is needed.” Estraven said, and, shrugging off offense with an ease I could only envy, began to tinker with the stove, his eyes downcast. I saw, not for the first time, the delicacy of his features. It was accentuated in kemmer, but it remained in somer. He was a woman, also. Always.
There was no point to ruminating on this now. I did not wish to explain to him that kisses are not normally extended to platonic friends, on Earth, if indeed that was even the source of the confusion between us. To speak of it at all, I would then have to explain myself, and, to my horror, I found nothing to say that would be adequate. What could be said to this man that would explain anything I had done or felt? If I were to do any such thing-- and I could-- I would have to wait for a time when we were no longer so closely confined to each other's company. To break one's trust, to embarrass or upset, in such conditions as these could be fatal. This is what I told myself. I do not know if Estraven would have agreed.
Instead, I said something that bridges friendship, trust, direct order and thought, and above all, truth. Something where ambiguity can cast no shadow. “I said, once, that I could teach you paraverbal speech. Are you still interested?”