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An Introduction to Birds

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They had seen the first bird within five minutes of leaving the planetside elevator terminal, but those first four minutes had been rough. Walking out of the terminal’s sliding doors and onto the unadulterated planet surface was like walking into a wet blanket and being told to inhale.

So this was what subtropical Terran humidity felt like. Estraven was wondering how much damage catching the next ship to Gethen would do to their shifgrethor when Genly pointed out the aircar.

Aircars were nothing spectacular. Most of Gethen had seen them, or seen pictures of them, zipping through the sky at ungodly speeds, usually with a cheery alien behind the control panel. Not unlike sledges, once you accepted that a thing heavier than snow might float. This aircar hovered patiently at the curb with a sign that read Estraven and Ai, Ekumen Conference.

“To the hotel, then,” Estraven said. Or tried to say. There was a lot of unexpected water in their air today.

An impossible, delicate, unimaginably alien airborne thing exploded onto the car roof, hopped three times, shrieked, then morphed into a semi-horizontal flash of brown and white and launched itself back into the sky.

Estraven had seen many wonderful and terrible things before. They had even seen pictures and recordings of this specific kind of thing. It was no comparison to the actual experience.

“That’s a bird,” they whispered. Once Genly had told them that aircars, planes, and all manner of absurd flying contraptions made sense once you had seen a bird fly. This was after he had figured out how best to convey the nuance of “flight” in a language on a planet where nothing had ever evolved wings. It was complicated.
The aircar did not make sense in the context of the bird. It was like saying a tugboat made sense when you had seen the magnificent ponderous progress of an ice floe down a silent river. There was no comparison.

“Yes, that’s a bird,” Genly said. “A juvenile starling, I think. Probably wondering if we were going to set any snacks down while we loaded our luggage.” He grabbed the bags. “You’ll see them everywhere. They’re an invasive species.”

“I’m in good company already.”

The starling was the first of many. Ungainly wrinkled creatures with warty red beaks clustered together on the burgeoning roadside. Downy bundles unfolded into long-necked animals that stalked across the streets on long, slender legs, with all the hauteur of a Karhidish king. Gleaming black bodies dove, danced, and darted through the air like windswept snow but waddled across the ground like children in their first pair of snowshoes.

“Vultures, cranes, and grackles,” Genly said. They had spent the drive to the hotel discussing birds as much as their joint presentation for the conference.
“How many local species can you name?”

Genly considered this. “Not many of them,” he admitted. “But enough to recognize the regulars. We should go birdwatching before the conference starts. We haven’t had time for anything but official business in months, and I don’t think we’ve spent much time alone together since—you know.”

“Let’s not talk about the ice right now,’” said Estraven, watching a pair of the yellow-eyed grackles playing in the hotel courtyard. “I’m still in awe of all the living things here. All the plants have other plants growing on them.”

The biodiversity in even this small corner of Terra was astonishing. Every unmanicured surface was wild with thickets of deciduous trees that dripped with vines and moss, and no man-made structure went ignored by the embrace. Flowering grasses, leafy shrubs, pink and violet and bright blue and thousands of shades of green everywhere the eye could see.

“We’re here for the Ekumenical conference on interplanetary communication skills,” Genly told the clerk at the front desk. “Checking in a few days early to do some sight seeing.”

The hotel was artificially, blissfully hot instead of blistering, but the clerk was wearing a coat.

“Where are you from?” The clerk was a round, rainbow-haired Terran near Sorve’s age, who looked both caught up in the throes of kemmer and bored beyond belief.
“I’m Terran,” Genly said, “I actually did my flight training in this area.” The clerk made a polite and uninterested noise while she checked her tablet. “Mx Ai is one of the Gethenian ambassadors,” Genly added, grinning at Estraven. They tore themself away from the two-storied aviary in the hotel lobby, where sleek white birds with yellow crests and pink cheeks slid up and down a three-dimensional wooden maze, chattering like abacus beads.

“You’re from Gethen?” The bored clerk was suddenly riveted. “I’ve only seen snow in entertainments,” she confessed.

“I’m not sure you’ve missed much,” Estraven said. They gestured at the birds, the falls of heart shaped leaves pouring out of pots above the desk, the paddles of spiked green and purple leaves lined like sentries along the grand curling staircase. “You have so much to see here.The birds are particularly wonderful. Nothing flies on Gethen.”
“We probably have enough birds in this one city to fill a whole other planet,” the clerk said. Her face lit up and she passed a brochure over with the room key. “You should visit the nature preserve nearby. There are hundreds of birds on the lake and the purple gallinules are nesting right now. We have tandem kayaks for guests to borrow.”

Paddling out to see the birds had seemed like an excellent idea right up until they were in the water.

“I didn’t realize we would be so exposed,” Estraven said. The hotel clerk’s idea of a kayak bore no resemblance to the Karhidish craft that was its closest equivalent. For one thing, this boat didn’t even cover their legs, and the sides were very low.

Estraven gripped the paddle in both hands and did a few experimental strokes. With both of them paddling, the kayak cut through the water quickly enough that the brim of their hat flapped in the wind. They were already sweating inside the loudly patterned sun shirt that Genly had recommended. It fit like a sausage casing.

Genly didn’t evince any discomfort at being in the kayak. Not that Estraven hear, anyway. It was impossible to see the person in the back seat without turning around, and turning around wasn’t conducive to paddling. They wondered what the purple gallinules’ nesting site would look like. And what the purple gallinules would look like.

“Have you been to this place before?” Estraven dug their paddle in and tried to ignore the lapping water. They had been on similar expeditions before, if your definition of similar included dramatically different weather conditions and fashion choices.

They remembered being young, adventurous, and stupid in a very small boat in the open sea, wishing that there weren’t so many ice floes to navigate around. Compared to the heat and humidity the ice hadn’t been so bad.

“Not this preserve,” Genly was saying over the splashing paddles. “But this region is all wetlands. I think I went out exploring with my cohort a few times, before we were all too busy with studying and exams.” He sounded like the sun had melted all practical concerns right off of him.

It was the sun, Estraven decided. The lake was beautiful, even with the water splashing so loud and so close. They would have felt more comfortable if it weren’t for the oppressive heat. No chance of getting used to it so quickly.

The kayak moved deeper into the water. Past thick walls of trees they went, down one of the fingers pointing into the heart of the lake. It was unreal and lovely, like nothing Estraven had seen before, but they couldn’t stop feeling like some familiar nightmare was about to replay itself. Strange feeling to have while you were taking a few days’ vacation before the start of your new career as an interplanetary ambassador.

Purple gallinules, they thought. Genly seemed content to paddle in silence.

Gradually the trees on the sidelines dropped back. Where there had been vegetation there was nothing but the blurred suggestion of greenery on the horizon, for they had come to the heart of the lake.

Because this was a lake, and a relatively small one, there wasn’t much in the way of waves. It didn’t matter. There was something about the way the water lapped against the side of the boat, something about the sound of the oars in the water. The day had gone suddenly cold. Estraven couldn’t move.

“Therem?”

It was a shock to hear Genly so close. Of course, Estraven reminded themself, he is right behind you. Probably not a good idea to turn and look, though. No point in looking back across the water. There was only the great expanse of the lake, with its shifting wavelets and a foreign shore on the other side.

“Therem, what is it?”

The kayak floated, perfectly still, on the water.

“Orgoreyn,” Estraven said when they had found their voice again. “It’s ridiculous, but I can’t stop thinking about rowing to Orgoreyn.”

“Therem—“

“It will pass in a moment,” they said. “I do want to see the purple gallinules. Whatever they are.”

It did pass. After a while the sun came back, the foreign shore receded to be replaced by subtropical forest, and there was the distant chatter of birds. Estraven put their paddle back in and they went onwards.

The trees on the other side came into focus, but it wasn’t the far shore, it was the flank of a long island surrounded by an undulating carpet of lilies and cattails.

“Do you see any nests?”

“Surely not on the water,” Estraven said, examining the plants. “Unless the nests float?”

“I think there’s enough vegetation to support them,” said Genly, reaching out his paddle to sweep aside some of the taller stalks for a better view into the floating carpet.
Something rushed out at them. Genly jumped, shaking the kayak and knocking his paddle into the water, and Estraven swore and grabbed the sides of the kayak while it shifted and stabilized. At the disruption, there was an explosion of sound and color.

Hundreds of birds in every shape and size burst out of the vegetation and into the sky, croaking and cackling and shouting, beating wings of all colors and wheeling in kaleidoscopic loops around the boat. It was like being caught in a storm. Genly grabbed Estraven’s hand and they waited as one by one the birds peeled off of the wheeling flock and flew away, or slid back into the floating plants like water down a funnel.

One bright beady eye appeared between the cattails, followed by a bird not much larger than the lilies. Its belly was purple shading into blue, with a cape of bright green feathers and a red beak. Above its eyes was a pale blue marking like a hat.

The bird walked towards them on long-toed yellow legs. Flowers dipped and buckled under its weight but it never seemed to go under the water. It pecked at the dropped paddle, then jumped back in disdain when Genly pulled the paddle out of the water. The bird beat its wings at them and fluttered back into the plants to hide.

“I’m fairly sure those are purple gallinules,” Genly said, as he paddled them down the length of the water plants, past another pair of the brightly colored birds. “Unless we see another purple bird.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Estraven said. They sounded more like themself now.

Any lingering sense of the river crossing to Orgoreyn had been banished by the birds. Another enormous wading bird (“that’s a heron,” Genly said) flapped down not far from them, and something elegant and sinuous swam by with just its long neck out of the water.

Dozens of small birds preened themselves in trees on the island shore, and the ever-present starlings and grackles hopped around and swooped through the air. Another purple gallinule pecked around a lily pad.

“I’m sorry,” Genly said. “I didn’t think to ask if you wanted to go out on the lake, I just assumed and let the clerk make the reservation for us. We should have gone to see the birds somewhere else.”

“Don’t be sorry. I’m glad we came. And I didn’t realize it would bother me until we had come all the way out here.” Estraven gestured to the island. “It was something to do with the sound, or maybe just sitting so close to the water, but it doesn’t matter either way. It’s happened. It isn’t happening now. I’ll be alright.”

“I wake up thinking about the blizzard sometimes,” Genly said quietly. “For a moment, it feels like we’re still in the tent. I can hear the wind and the snow all around us. Sometimes there’s a kind of peace in it. But I’d rather not dwell on it, all the same.”

They watched the lone purple gallinule get bored with its lily and walk across the floating leaves to another one.

“Shall we move on?”

“Do you want to go back?”

“Certainly not to the hotel, we’ll spend more than enough time trapped indoors once the conference starts.” Estraven took up their paddle. “Let’s see the rest of the lake. And then let’s go back to solid ground and do the rest of our sight-seeing from there.”

They moved down the the flank of the island and around its floating carpet, watching the birds pick through the lilies and soar around the lake. It was still painfully humid and the brim of the hat was only doing so much to keep the sun out of Estraven’s eyes, but those things didn’t matter.