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thinking it was too far away

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After Ai spoke fumblingly of the women of his world, he was silent a long while. Perhaps out of embarrassment at giving such a poor account; perhaps out of confusion. He seemed to know no more what a woman was than I, who had never met one: not many composers, he’d said, and they tend to eat less. 

Less than what, I wondered. Less than a man? Less than a Gethenian? What was the ratio of child-rearing to philosophy that tipped the scales of that equation?

I thought in that vein for a while. Gradually my thoughts on the matter became, if no less complex, easier to articulate.

“Do we share a sex, though?” I said. 

Ai had been staring into the light of the stove; his gaze flicked to mine for only a moment, and then back. “I suppose we do,” said he. “At least, as I understand it.” 

“You have something beyond sex, though. Sex is…” I frowned, feeling my own inadequacy. Karhidish, which we were speaking, did not have the words I needed. Whatever Ai had that I lacked, it was equally as foreign as flying. Finally I said, “How one kemmers leaves no mark from one month to the next. But for you…”

“For I, who am never out of kemmer yet never truly in it.” 

“Even so,” I said. 

“There is…” he said, and, “I suppose one might… Yes. The immutability of my people must be a stranger thought to stomach than any level of arousal. We become entrenched in it, you see: I cannot conceive of myself as a woman any more than I might conceive of myself in kemmer.”

“I see I’ve asked the wrong question,” I said. “What is it to be a man?”

Ai’s mouth moved soundlessly. “You have me there,” he said. Nothing else. 

His expression was strange, and hard to see in the flickering light of the stove. I moved closer accordingly. 

“If your purpose is to augment the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life,” I said, quoting his Ekumen, “surely there can be no harm seeking the complexity in oneself.” 

“And if oneself is insufficient?” he said. 

I smiled. “Surely we have come beyond modesty, here of all places.”

“The fault isn’t mine, but with the premise,” Ai said, ducking his head. “I can say that to be a man is to be that which a woman is not, but then you get some — if few — woman Envoys, or mathematicians. I can say women are short; but then one thinks of small men, and women taller than oneself. Or I can say that to be a man is to be as I am, I who know myself for a man, but I’m only one of many, and not an exemplar of the type… I suppose all I know is what I feel manhood is.”

“And what is that?” 

“You would know, wouldn’t you? You’ve felt it,” he said. 

“I’ve felt my flesh change, and that’s all,” I said shortly. “I don’t feel much of a difference between one or the other; it feels good regardless, and there’s no sense getting attached to either form.” 

“What is it like?” Ai asked, quick as if the words were being dragged out of him. “To be — to experience yourself so differently? To change like that?” 

“You don’t notice the change,” I said. “Not until it’s through. Like falling asleep: that subtle, and that sudden.” 

“I,” he said. “I don’t — is that — Harth.”

“What?” I said. He kept leaning back; it was very irritating, when I was trying to have a conversation. 

“You said you mustn’t touch me.” 

“We aren’t touching,” I said. No thanks to him, either.

He swallowed. “I hope it doesn’t violate some point of shifgrethor to say you’re all but on my lap.”

I hadn’t realized it before he said so. And I suppose he had seen what I had not, for I had nothing to see. I always associated signs of interest with signs of kemmer; to look at Ai required a conscious uncoupling. He was no more in kemmer now than he was at any time I’d known him. He was significantly more interested. 

“We can lose a few days,” I said. “We have the time. So long as you…” 

His face was very close to mine. “So long as I…?” he asked. And then his hand was on my back, and my lips were on his, and I felt myself sink. 

Kemmer is as much a trance as anything one learns at a Fastness. One feels out of time, out of place; how long it took, or what happened exactly when, one can’t recall afterwards. Genly remembered it all, and later we would piece it together, but in my memory I had only a handful of shining fragments.

Like so: 


We were peeling each other out of our clothes. It struck me as critical to observe every centimeter of Genly’s skin, to see whether he seemed different, and how. He had just undone my innermost shirt; his mouth was on my chest, exploring me as I did him. I pulled down his smallclothes and shoved him back a little, wanting a full look. 

“Oh,” I said. 

He looked wary, as I suppose he would, being scrutinized by an aroused alien. I would have been more nervous myself had I not thrown my discretion away with somer.  

“You look — you make sense,” I said. “There is a beauty to kemmerings that one only sees once one’s in it. I didn’t know if you would have it, if it was intrinsic to my people; but of course it wasn’t.” He pulled me closer, and I let out a moan at his hands on me. “Of course it works for you. It’s about the beholder: my need is what changed, not what I see in you.”

He moved his thigh up a little, the better for me to grind against. I hadn’t realized I’d been doing it, but the feeling was delicious.


He was on top of me, fully erect, and it struck me that I always enjoyed it better after I’d been eaten out first. I told him so, and his face looked suddenly sheepish. 

“A — further distinction, of Terran males,” he said, “is that we cannot… there is something called a refractory period.” 

His hand felt good on my clitopenis; I was sure his tongue would feel better. “I know what that is,” I said. “I can wait ten minutes,” 

“Ten?” he said. His face was comically aghast. I needed to kiss it. 

We enjoyed each other like that for a few moments — slowly and indulgently on my part, but with a tinge of worry on his. Finally, he pulled away. “It’s only that — either I go inside you now, or I’m useless for… I don’t know how long. I know it’s not what you need.” 

“That’s good too,” I said, and gasped at the feel of him sliding into me. Everything was so good. Everything would always be good. 


I was bucking my hips against his fingers, but something was wrong. He could get deeper, I knew he could; he had lovely, large hands. He’d made me come with them before. There shouldn’t be any problem now.

“Therem,” he said, “if I keep going any longer, I’m going to sprain my wrists.” 

That wasn’t my problem, not at the moment. That problem belonged to Therem in somer. Therem in kemmer wasn’t concerned with Genly’s future dexterity. I was so close, I could just feel what I wasn’t getting, and when I groaned it was with frustration, not arousal. 

“Let me think,” he said. He pulled his fingers out of me. I wanted to scream. “I know. I know, Therem. Just give me a moment.” 

He rubbed soothing circles outside of me while he thought and let me mouth at his chest. No real intent. No real energy. I didn’t realize yet, but he was wrung out. 

Finally he said, “My face. I’ll lie back, and lick you with you on top of me. I’m — not particularly inclined to movement, but I can manage that.” 

He leaned back, and we did.


We clung to each other face to face; he had come inside me, and for the moment I was sated. He made to move out of me, and the thought was suddenly unbearable. 

“No,” I said. “Stay, please, not yet.” 

“I don’t think I can manage another round,” he said. 

“Nor I.”

“Then why?” he asked. 

I did not know how to explain myself to him. I could feel myself still in kemmer, but I could feel too how it would slowly slip away. I would stay here a while with a Genly who for once understood me, who would bend his need to mine, and then I would fall asleep; and when I woke we would be back to measuring miles and stretching rations.

I, whose job it was to worry about everything, had laid down my burden for once. I wanted to savor that ease until the very end. It was akin to the last song at a concert; the last bite of a dish, carefully chosen to look back on the evening with a fond memory. 

“It feels good,” I said, more simply put but no less true. “I don’t want it to be over.” 

“Alright,” he said, and we lay entwined until true sleep took me. 

The next thing I was aware of was Genly’s hands smoothing my hair, Genly’s breath close to my face. We were both half awake, clinging blindly to comfort. The deepest chill sets in just before the sun rises, and though Genly’s height made him a poor candidate for polar survival, it became an evolutionary advantage when he wrapped himself around me. 

I clung tighter to him on waking, he bent his head down to speak, and somehow our lips met. It was a pleasant sensation, the way any warmth is pleasant in the cold. I returned the kiss, wondering whether kemmering with an alien might — but no. Nothing in me wanted to take it deeper. 

Genly pulled back. “It’s gone, isn’t it?” he said. 

“It is,” I said. The little unpleasantnesses one ignores in kemmer, the aches and stickiness, had begun to make themselves known. “I don’t expect I’ll be of much use today.” 

Genly nodded to himself. He tried to pull his hand away from my hair — absurd, as if one could only seek comfort in the throes of desire. 

It struck me suddenly that if I was the closest he had to a confidante in Karhide, I had given him exactly that impression. I laughed, and it was as much as myself as at him.

“Harth?” Genly said, cautious as ever. 

“Therem,” I corrected him. I was still pleased enough to forget shifgrethor for the moment. In any event, Genly took direction better than I had expected.  

“Therem, then,” he said. I liked my name in his mouth. 

In a moment we would get up. I would ready us to pack, and he would pull his clothes over a body that had become strange to me again, and we would return to the work. But there would be the memory of this hanging over it; there would be the hope for more, once our journey was done. Once we had all the days in the world to lose.