ANOTHER STORY or A FISHERMAN OF THE INLAND SEA
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin is an American writer born in 1929 in Berkeley, California, who now lives in Portland, Oregon. An iconic figure in fantasy, science fiction, and general fiction, she has published twenty-one novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry, and four books in translation. Le Guin has received many honors and awards including the Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, and PEN-Malamud. Her most recent publications are Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems, 1960–2010 and The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories. “Another Story” was first published in Tomorrow in 1994.
To the Stabiles of the Ekumen on Hain, and to Gvonesh, Director of the Churten Field Laboratories at Ve Port: from Tiokunan’n Hideo, Farmholder of the Second Sedoretu of Udan, Derdan’nad, Oket, on O.
I shall make my report as if I told a story, this having been the tradition for some time now. You may, however, wonder why a farmer on the planet O is reporting to you as if he were a Mobile of the Ekumen. My story will explain that. But it does not explain itself. Story is our only boat for sailing on the river of time, but in the great rapids and the winding shallows, no boat is safe.
So: once upon a time when I was twenty-one years old I left my home and came on the NAFAL ship Terraces of Darranda to study at the Ekumenical Schools on Hain.
The distance between Hain and my home world is just over four light-years, and there has been traffic between O and the Hainish system for twenty centuries. Even before the Nearly As Fast As Light drive, when ships spent a hundred years of planetary time instead of four to make the crossing, there were people who would give up their old life to come to a new world. Sometimes they returned; not often. There were tales of such sad returns to a world that had forgotten the voyager. I knew also from my mother a very old story called “The Fisherman of the Inland Sea,” which came from her home world, Terra. The life of a ki’O child is full of stories, but of all I heard told by her and my othermother and my fathers and grandparents and uncles and aunts and teachers, that one was my favorite. Perhaps I liked it so well because my mother told it with deep feeling, though very plainly, and always in the same words (and I would not let her change the words if she ever tried to).
The story tells of a poor fisherman, Urashima, who went out daily in his boat alone on the quiet sea that lay between his home island and the mainland. He was a beautiful young man with long, black hair, and the daughter of the king of the sea saw him as he leaned over the side of the boat and she gazed up to see the floating shadow cross the wide circle of the sky.
Rising from the waves, she begged him to come to her palace under the sea with her. At first he refused, saying, “My children wait for me at home.” But how could he resist the sea king’s daughter? “One night,” he said. She drew him down with her under the water, and they spent a night of love in her green palace, served by strange undersea beings. Urashima came to love her dearly, and maybe he stayed more than one night only. But at last he said, “My dear, I must go. My children wait for me at home.”
“If you go, you go forever,” she said.
“I will come back,” he promised.
She shook her head. She grieved, but did not plead with him. “Take this with you,’ she said, giving him a little box, wonderfully carved, and sealed shut. “Do not open it, Urashima.”
So he went up onto the land, and ran up the shore to his village, to his house: but the garden was a wilderness, the windows were blank, the roof had fallen in. People came and went among the familiar houses of the village, but he did not know a single face. “Where are my children?” he cried. An old woman stopped and spoke to him: “What is your trouble, young stranger?”
“I am Urashima, of this village, but I see no one here I know!”
“Urashima!” the woman said – and my mother would look far away, and her voice as she said the name made me shiver, tears starting to my eyes “Urashima! My grandfather told me a fisherman named Urashima was lost at sea, in the time of his grandfather’s grandfather. There has been no one of that family alive for a hundred years.”
So Urashima went back down to the shore; and there he opened the box, the gift of the sea king’s daughter. A little white smoke came out of it and drifted away on the sea wind. In that moment Urashima’s black hair turned white, and he grew old, old, old; and he lay down on the sand and died.
Once, I remember, a traveling teacher asked my mother about the fable, as he called it. She smiled and said, “In the Annals of the Emperors of my nation of Terra it is recorded that a young man named Urashima, of the Yosa district, went away in the year 477, and came back to his village in the year 825, but soon departed again. And I have heard that the box was kept in a shrine for many centuries.” Then they talked about something else.
My mother, Isako, would not tell the story as often as I demanded it. “That one is so sad,” she would say, and tell instead about Grandmother and the rice dumpling that rolled away, or the painted cat who came alive and killed the demon rats, or the peach boy who floated down the river. My sister and my germanes, and older people, too, listened to her tales as closely as I did. They were new stories on O, and a new story is always a treasure. The painted cat story was the general favorite, especially when my mother would take out her brush and the block of strange, black, dry ink from Terra, and sketch the animals – cat, rat – that none of us had ever seen: the wonderful cat with arched back and brave round eyes, the fanged and skulking rats, “pointed at both ends” as my sister said. But I waited always, through all other stories, for her to catch my eye, look away, smile a little and sigh, and begin, “Long, long ago, on the shore of the Inland Sea there lived a fisherman…”
Did I know then what that story meant to her? that it was her story? that if she were to return to her village, her world, all the people she had known would have been dead for centuries?
Certainly I knew that she “came from another world”, but what that meant to me as a five-, or seven-, or ten-year-old, is hard for me now to imagine, impossible to remember. I knew that she was a Terran and had lived on Hain; that was something to be proud of. I knew that she had come to O as a Mobile of the Ekumen (more pride, vague and grandiose) and that “your father and I fell in love at the Festival of Plays in Sudiran.” I knew also that arranging the marriage had been a tricky business. Getting permission to resign her duties had not been difficult – the Ekumen is used to Mobiles going native. But as a foreigner, Isako did not belong to a ki’O moiety, and that was only the first problem. I heard all about it from my othermother, Tubdu, an endless source of family history, anecdote, and scandal. “You know,” Tubdu told me when I was eleven or twelve, her eyes shining and her irrepressible, slightly wheezing, almost silent laugh beginning to shake her from the inside out – “you know, she didn’t even know women got married? Where she came from, she said, women don’t marry.”
I could and did correct Tubdu: “Only in her part of it. She told me there’s lots of parts of it where they do.” I felt obscurely defensive of my mother, though Tubdu spoke without a shadow of malice or contempt; she adored Isako. She had fallen in love with her “the moment I saw her – that black hair! that mouth!” – and simply found it endearingly funny that such a woman could have expected to marry only a man.
“I understand,” Tubdu hastened to assure me. “I know – on Terra it’s different, their fertility was damaged, they have to think about marrying for children. And they marry in twos, too. Oh, poor Isako! How strange it must have seemed to her! I remember how she looked at me—” And off she went again into what we children called The Great Giggle, her joyous, silent, seismic laughter.
To those unfamiliar with our customs I should explain that on O, a world with a low, stable human population and an ancient climax technology, certain social arrangements are almost universal. The dispersed village, an association of farms, rather than the city or state, is the basic social unit. The population consists of two halves or moieties. A child is born into its mother’s moiety, so that all ki’O (except the mountain folk of Ennik) belong either to the Morning People, whose time is from midnight to noon, or the Evening People, whose time is from noon to midnight. The sacred origins and functions of the moieties are recalled in the Discussions and the Plays and in the services at every farm shrine. The original social function of the moiety was probably to structure exogamy into marriage and so discourage inbreeding in isolated farmholds, since one can have sex with or marry only a person of the other moiety. The rule is severely reinforced. Transgressions, which of course occur, are met with shame, contempt, and ostracism. One’s identity as a Morning or an Evening Person is as deeply and intimately part of oneself as one’s gender, and has quite as much to do with one’s sexual life.
A ki’O marriage, called a sedoretu, consists of a Morning woman and man and an Evening woman and man; the heterosexual pairs are called Morning and Evening according to the woman’s moiety; the homosexual pairs are called Day – the two women, and Night – the two men.
So rigidly structured a marriage, where each of four people must be sexually compatible with two of the others while never having sex with the fourth – clearly this takes some arranging. Making sedoretu is a major occupation of my people. Experimenting is encouraged; foursomes form and dissolve, couples “try on” other couples, mixing and matching. Brokers, traditionally elderly widowers, go about among the farmholds of the dispersed villages, arranging meetings, setting up field dances, serving as universal confidants. Many marriages begin as a love match of one couple, either homosexual or heterosexual, to which another pair or two separate people become attached. Many marriages are brokered or arranged by the village elders from beginning to end. To listen to the old people under the village great tree making a sedoretu is like watching a master game of chess or tidhe. “If that Evening boy at Erdup were to meet young Tobo during the flour-processing at Gad’d…” “Isn’t Hodin’n of the Oto Morning a programmer? They could use a programmer at Erdup.…” The dowry a prospective bride or groom can offer is their skill, or their home farm. Otherwise undesired people may be chosen and honored for the knowledge or the property they bring to a marriage. The farmhold, in turn, wants its new members to be agreeable and useful. There is no end to the making of marriages on O. I should say that all in all they give as much satisfaction as any other arrangement to the participants, and a good deal more to the marriage-makers.
Of course many people never marry. Scholars, wandering Discussers, itinerant artists and experts, and specialists in the Centers seldom want to fit themselves into the massive permanence of a farmhold sedoretu. Many people attach themselves to a brother’s or sister’s marriage as aunt or uncle, a position with limited, clearly defined responsibilities; they can have sex with either or both spouses of the other moiety, thus sometimes increasing the sedoretu from four to seven or eight. Children of that relationship are called cousins. The children of one mother are brothers or sisters to one another; the children of the Morning and the children of the Evening are germanes. Brothers, sisters, and first cousins may not marry, but germanes may. In some less conservative parts of O germane marriages are looked at askance, but they are common and respected in my region.
My father was a Morning man of Udan Farmhold of Derdan’nad Village in the hill region of the Northwest Watershed of the Saduun River, on Oket, the smallest of the six continents of O. The village comprises seventy-seven farmholds, in a deeply rolling, stream-cut region of fields and forests on the watershed of the Oro, a tributary of the wide Saduun. It is fertile, pleasant country, with views west to the Coast Range and south to the great floodplains of the Saduun and the gleam of the sea beyond. The Oro is a wide, lively, noisy river full of fish and children. I spent my childhood in or on or by the Oro, which runs through Udan so near the house that you can hear its voice all night, the rush and hiss of the water and the deep drumbeats of rocks rolled in its current. It is shallow and quite dangerous. We all learned to swim very young in a quiet bay dug out as a swimming pool, and later to handle rowboats and kayaks in the swift current full of rocks and rapids. Fishing was one of the children’s responsibilities. I liked to spear the fat, beady-eyed, blue ochid; I would stand heroic on a slippery boulder in midstream, the long spear poised to strike. I was good at it. But my germane Isidri, while I was prancing about with my spear, would slip into the water and catch six or seven ochid with her bare hands. She could catch eels and even the darting ei. I never could do it. “You just sort of move with the water and get transparent,” she said. She could stay underwater longer than any of us, so long you were sure she had drowned. “She’s too bad to drown,” her mother, Tubdu, proclaimed. “You can’t drown really bad people. They always bob up again.”
Tubdu, the Morning wife, had two children with her husband Kap: Isidri, a year older than me, and Suudi, three years younger. Children of the Morning, they were my germanes, as was Cousin Had’d, Tubdu’s son with Kap’s brother Uncle Tobo. On the Evening side there were two children, myself and my younger sister. She was named Koneko, an old name in Oket, which has also a meaning in my mother’s Terran language: “kitten,” the young of the wonderful animal “cat” with the round back and the round eyes. Koneko, four years younger than me, was indeed round and silky like a baby animal, but her eyes were like my mother’s, long, with lids that went up towards the temple, like the soft sheaths of flowers before they open. She staggered around after me, calling, “Deo! Deo! Wait!” – while I ran after fleet, fearless, ever-vanishing Isidri, calling, “Sidi! Sidi! Wait!”
When we were older, Isidri and I were inseparable companions, while Suudi, Koneko, and Cousin Had’d made a trinity, usually coated with mud, splotched with scabs, and in some kind of trouble – gates left open so the yamas got into the crops, hay spoiled by being jumped on, fruit stolen, battles with the children from Drehe Farmhold. “Bad, bad,” Tubdu would say. “None of ’em will ever drown!” And she would shake with her silent laughter.
My father Dohedri was a hardworking man, handsome, silent, and aloof. I think his insistence on bringing a foreigner into the tight-woven fabric of village and farm life, conservative and suspicious and full of old knots and tangles of passions and jealousies, had added anxiety to a temperament already serious. Other ki’O had married foreigners, of course, but almost always in a “foreign marriage,” a pairing; and such couples usually lived in one of the Centers, where all kinds of untraditional arrangements were common, even (so the village gossips hissed under the great tree) incestuous couplings between two Morning people! two Evening people! Or such pairs would leave O to live on Hain, or would cut all ties to all homes and become Mobiles on the NAFAL ships, only touching different worlds at different moments and then off again into an endless future with no past.
None of this would do for my father, a man rooted to the knees in the dirt of Udan Farmhold. He brought his beloved to his home, and persuaded the Evening People of Derdan’nad to take her into their moiety, in a ceremony so rare and ancient that a Caretaker had to come by ship and train from Noratan to perform it. Then he had persuaded Tubdu to join the sedoretu. As regards her Day marriage, this was no trouble at all, as soon as Tubdu met my mother; but it presented some difficulty as regards her Morning marriage. Kap and my father had been lovers for years; Kap was the obvious and willing candidate to complete the sedoretu; but Tubdu did not like him. Kap’s long love for my father led him to woo Tubdu earnestly and well, and she was far too good-natured to hold out against the interlocking wishes of three people, plus her own lively desire for Isako. She always found Kap a boring husband, I think; but his younger brother, Uncle Tobo, was a bonus. And Tubdu’s relation to my mother was infinitely tender, full of honor, of delicacy, of restraint. Once my mother spoke of it. “She knew how strange it all was to me,” she said. “She knows how strange it all is.”
“This world? Our ways?” I asked.
My mother shook her head very slightly. “Not so much that,” she said in her quiet voice with the faint foreign accent. “But men and women, women and women, together – love – It is always very strange. Nothing you know ever prepares you. Ever.”
The saying is, “a marriage is made by Day,” that is, the relationship of the two women makes or breaks it. Though my mother and father loved each other deeply, it was a love always on the edge of pain, never easy. I have no doubt that the radiant childhood we had in that household was founded on the unshakable joy and strength Isako and Tubdu found in each other.
So, then: twelve-year-old Isidri went off on the suntrain to school at Herhot, our district educational Center, and I wept aloud, standing in the morning sunlight in the dust of Derdan’nad Station. My friend, my playmate, my life was gone. I was bereft, deserted, alone forever. Seeing her mighty eleven-year-old elder brother weeping, Koneko set up a howl too, tears rolling down her cheeks in dusty balls like raindrops on a dirt road. She threw her arms about me, roaring, “Hideo! She’ll come back! She’ll come back!”
I have never forgotten that. I can hear her hoarse little voice, and feel her arms round me and the hot morning sunlight on my neck.
By afternoon we were all swimming in the Oro, Koneko and I and Suudi and Had’d. As their elder, I resolved on a course of duty and stern virtue, and led the troop off to help Second-Cousin Topi at the irrigation control station, until she drove us away like a swarm of flies, saying, “Go help somebody else and let me get some work done!” We went and built a mud palace.
So, then: a year later, twelve-year-old Hideo and thirteen-year-old Isidri went off on the suntrain to school, leaving Koneko on the dusty siding, not in tears, but silent, the way our mother was silent when she grieved.
I loved school. I know that the first days I was achingly homesick, but I cannot recall that misery, buried under my memories of the full, rich years at Herhot, and later at Ran’n, the Advanced Education Center, where I studied temporal physics and engineering.
Isidri finished the First Courses at Herhot, took a year of Second in literature, hydrology, and oenology, and went home to Udan Farmhold of Derdan’nad Village in the hill region of the Northwest Watershed of the Saduun.
The three younger ones all came to school, took a year or two of Second, and carried their learning home to Udan. When she was fifteen or sixteen, Koneko talked of following me to Ran’n; but she was wanted at home because of her excellence in the discipline we call “thick planning” – farm management is the usual translation, but the words have no hint of the complexity of factors involved in thick planning, ecology politics profit tradition aesthetics honor and spirit all functioning in an intensely practical and practically invisible balance of preservation and renewal, like the homeostasis of a vigorous organism.
Our “kitten” had the knack for it, and the Planners of Udan and Derdan’nad took her into their councils before she was twenty. But by then, I was gone.
Every winter of my school years I came back to the farm for the long holidays. The moment I was home I dropped school like a book bag and became pure farm boy overnight – working, swimming, fishing, hiking, putting on Plays and farces in the barn, going to field dances and house dances all over the village, falling in and out of love with lovely boys and girls of the Morning from Derdan’nad and other villages.
In my last couple of years at Ran’n, my visits home changed mood. Instead of hiking off all over the country by day and going to a different dance every night, I often stayed home. Careful not to fall in love, I pulled away from my old, dear relationship with Sota of Drehe Farmhold, gradually letting it lapse, trying not to hurt him. I sat whole hours by the Oro, a fishing line in my hand, memorizing the run of the water in a certain place just outside the entrance to our old swimming bay. There, as the water rises in clear strands racing towards two mossy, almost-submerged boulders, it surges and whirls in spirals, and while some of these spin away, grow faint, and disappear, one knots itself on a deep center, becoming a little whirlpool, which spins slowly downstream until, reaching the quick, bright race between the boulders, it loosens and unties itself, released into the body of the river, as another spiral is forming and knotting itself round a deep center upstream where the water rises in clear strands above the boulders.… Sometimes that winter the river rose right over the rocks and poured smooth, swollen with rain; but always it would drop, and the whirlpools would appear again.
In the winter evenings I talked with my sister and Suudi, serious, long talks by the fire. I watched my mother’s beautiful hands work on the embroidery of new curtains for the wide windows of the dining room, which my father had sewn on the four-hundred-year-old sewing machine of Udan. I worked with him on reprogramming the fertilizer systems for the east fields and the yama rotations, according to our thick-planning council’s directives. Now and then he and I talked a little, never very much. In the evenings we had music; Cousin Had’d was a drummer, much in demand for dances, who could always gather a group. Or I would play Word-Thief with Tubdu, a game she adored and always lost at because she was so intent to steal my words that she forgot to protect her own. “Got you, got you!” she would cry, and melt into The Great Giggle, seizing my letterblocks with her fat, tapering, brown fingers; and next move I would take all my letters back along with most of hers. “How did you see that?” she would ask, amazed, studying the scattered words. Sometimes my otherfather Kap played with us, methodical, a bit mechanical, with a small smile for both triumph and defeat.
Then I would go up to my room under the eaves, my room of dark wood walls and dark red curtains, the smell of rain coming in the window, the sound of rain on the tiles of the roof. I would lie there in the mild darkness and luxuriate in sorrow, in great, aching, sweet, youthful sorrow for this ancient home that I was going to leave, to lose forever, to sail away from on the dark river of time. For I knew, from my eighteenth birthday on, that I would leave Udan, leave O, and go out to the other worlds. It was my ambition. It was my destiny.
I have not said anything about Isidri, as I described those winter holidays. She was there. She played in the Plays, worked on the farm, went to the dances, sang the choruses, joined the hiking parties, swam in the river in the warm rain with the rest of us. My first winter home from Ran’n, as I swung off the train at Derdan’nad Station, she greeted me with a cry of delight and a great embrace, then broke away with a strange, startled laugh and stood back, a tall, dark, thin girl with an intent, watchful face. She was quite awkward with me that evening. I felt that it was because she had always seen me as a little boy, a child, and now, eighteen and a student at Ran’n, I was a man. I was complacent with Isidri, putting her at her ease, patronizing her. In the days that followed, she remained awkward, laughing inappropriately, never opening her heart to me in the kind of long talks we used to have, and even, I thought, avoiding me. My whole last tenday at home that year, Isidri spent visiting her father’s relatives in Sabtodiu Village. I was offended that she had not put off her visit till I was gone.
The next year she was not awkward, but not intimate. She had become interested in religion, attending the shrine daily, studying the Discussions with the elders. She was kind, friendly, busy. I do not remember that she and I ever touched that winter until she kissed me good-bye. Among my people a kiss is not with the mouth; we lay our cheeks together for a moment, or for longer. Her kiss was as light as the touch of a leaf, lingering yet barely perceptible.
My third and last winter home, I told them I was leaving: going to Hain, and that from Hain I wanted to go on farther and forever.
How cruel we are to our parents! All I needed to say was that I was going to Hain. After her half-anguished, half-exultant cry of “I knew it!” my mother said in her usual soft voice, suggesting not stating, “After that, you might come back, for a while.” I could have said, “Yes.” That was all she asked. Yes, I might come back, for a while. With the impenetrable self-centeredness of youth, which mistakes itself for honesty, I refused to give her what she asked. I took from her the modest hope of seeing me after ten years, and gave her the desolation of believing that when I left she would never see me again. “If I qualify, I want to be a Mobile,” I said. I had steeled myself to speak without palliations. I prided myself on my truthfulness. And all the time, though I didn’t know it, nor did they, it was not the truth at all. The truth is rarely so simple, though not many truths are as complicated as mine turned out to be.
She took my brutality without the least complaint. She had left her own people, after all. She said that evening, “We can talk by ansible, sometimes, as long as you’re on Hain.” She said it as if reassuring me, not herself. I think she was remembering how she had said good-bye to her people and boarded the ship on Terra, and when she landed a few seeming hours later on Hain, her mother had been dead for fifty years. She could have talked to Terra on the ansible; but who was there for her to talk to? I did not know that pain, but she did. She took comfort in knowing I would be spared it, for a while.
Everything now was “for a while.” Oh, the bitter sweetness of those days! How I enjoyed myself – standing, again, poised on the slick boulder amidst the roaring water, spear raised, the hero! How ready, how willing I was to crush all that long, slow, deep, rich life of Udan in my hand and toss it away!
Only for one moment was I told what I was doing, and then so briefly that I could deny it.
I was down in the boathouse workshop, on the rainy, warm afternoon of a day late in the last month of winter. The constant, hissing thunder of the swollen river was the matrix of my thoughts as I set a new thwart in the little red rowboat we used to fish from, taking pleasure in the task, indulging my anticipatory nostalgia to the full by imagining myself on another planet a hundred years away remembering this hour in the boathouse, the smell of wood and water, the river’s incessant roar. A knock at the workshop door. Isidri looked in. The thin, dark, watchful face, the long braid of dark hair, not as black as mine, the intent, clear eyes. “Hideo,” she said, “I want to talk to you for a minute.”
“Come on in!” I said, pretending ease and gladness, though half-aware that in fact I shrank from talking with Isidri, that I was afraid of her – why?
She perched on the vise bench and watched me work in silence for a little while. I began to say something commonplace, but she spoke: “Do you know why I’ve been staying away from you?”
Liar, self-protective liar, I said, “Staying away from me?”
At that she sighed. She had hoped I would say I understood, and spare her the rest. But I couldn’t. I was lying only in pretending that I hadn’t noticed that she had kept away from me. I truly had never, never until she told me, imagined why.
“I found out I was in love with you, winter before last,” she said. “I wasn’t going to say anything about it because – well, you know. If you’d felt anything like that for me, you’d have known I did. But it wasn’t both of us. So there was no good in it. But then, when you told us you’re leaving … At first I thought, all the more reason to say nothing. But then I thought, that wouldn’t be fair. To me, partly. Love has a right to be spoken. And you have a right to know that somebody loves you. That somebody has loved you, could love you. We all need to know that. Maybe it’s what we need most. So I wanted to tell you. And because I was afraid you thought I’d kept away from you because I didn’t love you, or care about you, you know. It might have looked like that. But it wasn’t that.” She had slipped down off the table and was at the door.
“Sidi!” I said, her name breaking from me in a strange, hoarse cry, the name only, no words – I had no words. I had no feelings, no compassion, no more nostalgia, no more luxurious suffering. Shocked out of emotion, bewildered, blank, I stood there. Our eyes met. For four or five breaths we stood staring into each other’s soul. Then Isidri looked away with a wincing, desolate smile, and slipped out.
I did not follow her. I had nothing to say to her: literally. I felt that it would take me a month, a year, years, to find the words I needed to say to her. I had been so rich, so comfortably complete in myself and my ambition and my destiny, five minutes ago; and now I stood empty, silent, poor, looking at the world I had thrown away.
That ability to look at the truth lasted an hour or so. All my life since I have thought of it as “the hour in the boathouse.” I sat on the high bench where Isidri had sat. The rain fell and the river roared and the early night came on. When at last I moved, I turned on a light, and began to try to defend my purpose, my planned future, from the terrible plain reality. I began to build up a screen of emotions and evasions and versions; to look away from what Isidri had shown me; to look away from Isidri’s eyes.
By the time I went up to the house for dinner I was in control of myself. By the time I went to bed I was master of my destiny again, sure of my decision, almost able to indulge myself in feeling sorry for Isidri – but not quite. Never did I dishonor her with that. I will say that much for myself. I had had the pity that is self-pity knocked out of me in the hour in the boathouse. When I parted from my family at the muddy little station in the village, a few days after, I wept, not luxuriously for them, but for myself, in honest, hopeless pain. It was too much for me to bear. I had had so little practice in pain! I said to my mother, “I will come back. When I finish the course – six years, maybe seven – I’ll come back, I’ll stay a while.”
“If your way brings you,” she whispered. She held me close to her, and then released me.
So, then: I have come to the time I chose to begin my story, when I was twenty-one and left my home on the ship Terraces of Darranda to study at the Schools on Hain.
Of the journey itself I have no memory whatever. I think I remember entering the ship, yet no details come to mind, visual or kinetic; I cannot recollect being on the ship. My memory of leaving it is only of an overwhelming physical sensation, dizziness. I staggered and felt sick, and was so unsteady on my feet I had to be supported until I had taken several steps on the soil of Hain.
Troubled by this lapse of consciousness, I asked about it at the Ekumenical School. I was told that it is one of the many different ways in which travel at near-lightspeed affects the mind. To most people it seems merely that a few hours pass in a kind of perceptual limbo; others have curious perceptions of space and time and event, which can be seriously disturbing; a few simply feel they have been asleep when they “wake up” on arrival. I did not even have that experience. I had no experience at all. I felt cheated. I wanted to have felt the voyage, to have known, in some way, the great interval of space: but as far as I was concerned, there was no interval. I was at the spaceport on O, and then I was at Ve Port, dizzy, bewildered, and at last, when I was able to believe that I was there, excited.
My studies and work during those years are of no interest now. I will mention only one event, which may or may not be on record in the ansible reception file at Fourth Beck Tower, EY 21-1l-93/1645. (The last time I checked, it was on record in the ansible transmission file at Ran’n, ET date 30-11-93/1645. Urashima’s coming and going was on record, too, in the Annals of the Emperors.) 1645 was my first year on Hain. Early in the term I was asked to come to the ansible center, where they explained that they had received a garbled screen transmission, apparently from O, and hoped I could help them reconstitute it. After a date nine days later than the date of reception, it read:
les oku n hide problem netru emit it hurt di it may not be salv devir
The words were gapped and fragmented. Some were standard Hain-ish, but oku and netru mean “north” and “symmetrical” in Sio, my native language. The ansible centers on O had reported no record of the transmission, but the Receivers thought the message might be from O because of these two words and because the Hainish phrase “it may not be salvageable” occurred in a transmission received almost simultaneously from one of the Stabiles on O, concerning a wave-damaged de-salinization plant. “We call this a creased message,” the Receiver told me, when I confessed I could make nothing of it and asked how often ansible messages came through so garbled. “Not often, fortunately. We can’t be certain where or when they originated, or will originate. They may be effects of a double field – interference phenomena, perhaps. One of my colleagues here calls them ghost messages.”
Instantaneous transmission had always fascinated me, and though I was then only a beginner in ansible principle, I developed this fortuitous acquaintance with the Receivers into a friendship with several of them. And I took all the courses in ansible theory that were offered.
When I was in my final year in the school of temporal physics, and considering going on to the Cetian Worlds for further study – after my promised visit home, which seemed sometimes a remote, irrelevant daydream and sometimes a yearning and yet fearful need – the first reports came over the ansible from Anarres of the new theory of transilience. Not only information, but matter, bodies, people might be transported from place to place without lapse of time. “Churten technology” was suddenly a reality, although a very strange reality, an implausible fact.
I was crazy to work on it. I was about to go promise my soul and body to the School if they would let me work on churten theory when they came and asked me if I’d consider postponing my training as a Mobile for a year or so to work on churten theory, judiciously and graciously, I consented. I celebrated all over town that night. I remember showing all my friends how to dance the fen’n, and I remember setting off fireworks in the Great Plaza of the Schools, and I think I remember singing under the Director’s windows, a little before dawn. I remember what I felt like next day, too; but it didn’t keep me from dragging myself over to the Ti-Phy building to see where they were installing the Churten Field Laboratory.
Ansible transmission is, of course, enormously expensive, and I had only been able to talk to my family twice during my years on Hain; but my friends in the ansible center would occasionally “ride” a screen message for me on a transmission to O. I sent a message thus to Ran’n to be posted on to the First Sedoretu of Udan Farmhold of Derdan’nad Village of the hill district of the Northwest Watershed of the Saduun, Oket, on O, telling them that “although this research will delay my visit home, it may save me four years’ travel.” The flippant message revealed my guilty feeling; but we did really think then that we would have the technology within a few months.
The Field Laboratories were soon moved out to Ve Port, and I went with them. The joint work of the Cetian and Hainish churten research teams in those first three years was a succession of triumphs, postponements, promises, defeats, breakthroughs, setbacks, all happening so fast that anybody who took a week off was out-of date. “Clarity hiding mystery,” Gvonesh called it. Every time it all came clear it all grew more mysterious. The theory was beautiful and maddening. The experiments were exciting and inscrutable. The technology worked best when it was most preposterous. Four years went by in that laboratory like no time at all, as they say.
I had now spent ten years on Hain and Ve, and was thirty-one. On O, four years had passed while my NAFAL ship passed a few minutes of dilated time going to Hain, and four more would pass while I returned: so when I returned I would have been gone eighteen of their years. My parents were all still alive. It was high time for my promised visit home.
But though churten research had hit a frustrating setback in the Spring Snow Paradox, a problem the Cetians thought might be insoluble, I couldn’t stand the thought of being eight years out-of-date when I got back to Hain. What if they broke the paradox? It was bad enough knowing I must lose four years going to O. Tentatively, not too hopefully, I proposed to the Director that I carry some experimental materials with me to O and set up a fixed double-held auxiliary to the ansible link between Ve Port and Ran’n. Thus I could stay in touch with Ve, as Ve stayed in touch with Urras and Anarres; and the fixed ansible link might be preparatory to a churten link. I remember I said, “If you break the paradox, we might eventually send some mice.”
To my surprise my idea caught on; the temporal engineers wanted a receiving field. Even our Director, who could be as brilliantly inscrutable as churten theory itself, said it was a good idea. “Mouses, bugs, gholes, who knows what we send you?” she said.
So, then: when I was thirty-one years old I left Ve Port on the NAFAL transport Lady of Sorra and returned to O. This time I experienced the near-lightspeed flight the way most people do, as an unnerving interlude in which one cannot think consecutively, read a clockface, or follow a story. Speech and movement become difficult or impossible. Other people appear as unreal half presences, inexplicably there or not there. I did not hallucinate, but everything seemed hallucination. It is like a high fever – confusing, miserably boring, seeming endless, yet very difficult to recall once it is over, as if it were an episode outside one’s life, encapsulated. I wonder now if its resemblance to the “churten experience” has yet been seriously investigated.
I went straight to Ran’n, where I was given rooms in the New Quadrangle, fancier than my old student room in the Shrine Quadrangle, and some nice lab space in Tower Hall to set up an experimental transilience field station. I got in touch with my family right away and talked to all my parents; my mother had been ill, but was fine now, she said. I told them I would be home as soon as I had got things going at Ran’n. Every tenday I called again and talked to them and said I’d be along very soon now. I was genuinely very busy, having to catch up the lost four years and to learn Gvonesh’s solution to the Spring Snow Paradox. It was, fortunately, the only major advance in theory. Technology had advanced a good deal. I had to retrain myself, and to train my assistants almost from scratch. I had had an idea about an aspect of double-field theory that I wanted to work out before I left. Five months went by before I called them up and said at last, “I’ll be there tomorrow.” And when I did so, I realized that all along I had been afraid.
I don’t know if I was afraid of seeing them after eighteen years, of the changes, the strangeness, or if it was myself I feared.
Eighteen years had made no difference at all to the hills beside the wide Saduun, the farmlands, the dusty little station in Derdan’nad, the old, old houses on the quiet streets. The village great tree was gone, its replacement had a pretty wide spread of shade already. The aviary at Udan had been enlarged. The yama stared haughtily, timidly at me across the fence. A road gate that I had hung on my last visit home was decrepit, needing its post reset and new hinges, but the weeds that grew beside it were the same dusty, sweet-smelling summer weeds. The tiny dams of the irrigation runnels made their multiple, soft click and thump as they closed and opened. Everything was the same, itself. Timeless, Udan in its dream of work stood over the river that ran timeless in its dream of movement.
But the faces and bodies of the people waiting for me at the station in the hot sunlight were not the same. My mother, forty-seven when I left, was sixty-five, a beautiful and fragile elderly woman. Tubdu had lost weight; she looked shrunken and wistful. My father was still handsome and bore himself proudly, but his movements were slow and he scarcely spoke at all. My otherfather Kap, seventy now, was a precise, fidgety, little old man. They were still the First Sedoretu of Udan, but the vigor of the farmhold now lay in the Second and Third Sedoretu.
I knew of all the changes, of course, but being there among them was a different matter from hearing about them in letters and transmissions. The old house was much fuller than it had been when I lived there. The south wing had been reopened, and children ran in and out of its doors and across courtyards that in my childhood had been silent and ivied and mysterious.
My sister Koneko was now four years older than I instead of four years younger. She looked very like my early memory of my mother. As the train drew in to Derdan’nad Station, she had been the first of them I recognized, holding up a child of three or four and saying, “Look, look, our Uncle Hideo!”
The Second Sedoretu had been married for eleven years: Koneko and Isidri, sister-germanes, were the partners of the Day. Koneko’s husband was my old friend Sota, a Morning man of Drehe Farmhold. Sota and I had loved each other dearly when we were adolescents, and I had been grieved to grieve him when I left. When I heard that he and Koneko were in love I had been very surprised, so self-centered am I, but at least I am not jealous: it pleased me very deeply. Isidri’s husband, a man nearly twenty years older than herself, named Hedran, had been a traveling scholar of the Discussions. Udan had given him hospitality, his visits had led to the marriage. He and Isidri had no children. Sola and Koneko had two Evening children, a boy of ten called Murmi, and Lasako, Little Isako, who was four.
The Third Sedoretu had been brought to Udan by Suudi, my brother-germane, who had married a woman from Aster Village; their Morning pair also came from farmholds of Aster. There were six children in that sedoretu. A cousin whose sedoretu at Ekke had broken had also come to live at Udan with her two children; so the coming and going and dressing and undressing and washing and slamming and running and shouting and weeping and laughing and eating was prodigious. Tubdu would sit at work in the sunny kitchen courtyard and watch a wave of children pass. “Bad!” she would cry. “They’ll never drown, not a one of ’em!” And she would shake with silent laughter that became a wheezing cough.
My mother, who had after all been a Mobile of the Ekumen, and had traveled from Terra to Hain and from Hain to O, was impatient to hear about my research. “What is it, this churtening? How does it work, what does it do? Is it an ansible for matter?”
“That’s the idea,” I said. “Transilience: instantaneous transference of being from one s-tc point to another.”
Isako frowned. “It sounds wrong,” she said. “Explain.”
I had forgotten how direct my soft-spoken mother could be; I had forgotten that she was an intellectual. I did my best to explain the incomprehensible.
“So,” she said at last, “you don’t really understand how it works.”
“No. Nor even what it does. Except that – as a rule – when the field is in operation, the mice in Building One are instantaneously in Building Two, perfectly cheerful and unharmed. Inside their cage, if we remembered to keep their cage inside the initiating churten field. We used to forget. Loose mice everywhere.”
“What’s mice?” said a little Morning boy of the Third Sedoretu, who had stopped to listen to what sounded like a story.
“Ah,” I said in a laugh, surprised. I had forgotten that at Udan mice were unknown, and rats were fanged, demon enemies of the painted cat. “Tiny, pretty, furry animals,” I said, “that come from Grandmother Isako’s world. They are friends of scientists. They have traveled all over the Known Worlds.”
“In tiny little spaceships?” the child said hopefully.
“In large ones, mostly,” I said. He was satisfied, and went away.
“Hideo,” said my mother, in the terrifying way women have of passing without interval from one subject to another because they have them all present in their mind at once, “you haven’t found any kind of relationship?”
I shook my head, smiling.
“None at all?”
“A man from Alterra and I lived together for a couple of years,” I said. “It was a good friendship; but he’s a Mobile now. And … oh, you know … people here and there. Just recently, at Ran’n, I’ve been with a very nice woman from East Oket.”
“I hoped, if you intend to be a Mobile, that you might make a couple-marriage with another Mobile. It’s easier, I think,” she said. Easier than what? I thought, and knew the answer before I asked.
“Mother, I doubt now that I’ll travel farther than Hain. This churten business is too interesting; I want to be in on it. And if we do learn to control the technology, you know, then travel will be nothing. There’ll be no need for the kind of sacrifice you made. Things will be different. Unimaginably different! You could go to Terra for an hour and come back here: and only an hour would have passed.”
She thought about that. “If you do it, then,” she said, speaking slowly, almost shaking with the intensity of comprehension, “you will … you will shrink the galaxy – the universe? – to…” and she held up her left hand, thumb and fingers all drawn together to a point.
I nodded. “A mile or a light-year will be the same. There will be no distance.”
“It can’t be right,” she said after a while. “To have event without interval … Where is the dancing? Where is the way? I don’t think you’ll be able to control it, Hideo.” She smiled. “But of course you must try.”
And after that we talked about who was coming to the field dance at Drehe tomorrow.
I did not tell my mother that I had invited Tasi, the nice woman from East Oket, to come to Udan with me and that she had refused, had, in fact, gently informed me that she thought this was a good time for us to part. Tasi was tall, with a braid of dark hair, not coarse bright black like mine but soft, fine, dark, like the shadows in a forest. A typical ki’O woman, I thought. She had deflated my protestations of love skillfully and without shaming me. “I think you’re in love with somebody, though,” she said. “Somebody on Hain, maybe. Maybe the man from Alterra you told me about?” No, I said. No, I’d never been in love. I wasn’t capable of an intense relationship, that was clear by now. I’d dreamed too long of traveling the galaxy with no attachments anywhere, and then worked too long in the churten lab, married to a damned theory that couldn’t find its technology. No room for love, no time.
But why had I wanted to bring Tasi home with me?
Tall but no longer thin, a woman of forty, not a girl, not typical, not comparable, not like anyone anywhere, Isidri had greeted me quietly at the door of the house. Some farm emergency had kept her from coming to the village station to meet me. She was wearing an old smock and leggings like any field worker, and her hair, dark beginning to grey, was in a rough braid. As she stood in that wide doorway of polished wood she was Udan itself, the body and soul of that thirty-century-old farmhold, its continuity, its life. All my childhood was in her hands, and she held them out to me.
“Welcome home, Hideo,” she said, with a smile as radiant as the summer light on the river. As she brought me in, she said, “I cleared the kids out of your old room. I thought you’d like to be there – would you?” Again she smiled, and I felt her warmth, the solar generosity of a woman in the prime of life, married, settled, rich in her work and being. I had not needed Tasi as a defense. I had nothing to fear from Isidri. She felt no rancor, no embarrassment. She had loved me when she was young, another person. It would be altogether inappropriate for me to feel embarrassment, or shame, or anything but the old affectionate loyalty of the years when we played and worked and fished and dreamed together, children of Udan.
So, then: I settled down in my old room under the tiles. There were new curtains, rust and brown. I found a stray toy under the chair, in the closet, as if I as a child had left my playthings there and found them now. At fourteen, after my entry ceremony in the shrine, I had carved my name on the deep window jamb among the tangled patterns of names and symbols that had been cut into it for centuries. I looked for it now. There had been some additions. Beside my careful, clear Hideo, surrounded by my ideogram, the cloudflower, a younger child had hacked a straggling Dohedri, and nearby was carved a delicate three-roofs ideogram. The sense of being a bubble in Udan’s river, a moment in the permanence of life in this house on this land on this quiet world, was almost crushing, denying my identity, and profoundly reassuring, confirming my identity. Those nights of my visit home I slept as I had not slept for years, lost, drowned in the waters of sleep and darkness, and woke to the summer mornings as if reborn, very hungry.
The children were still all under twelve, going to school at home. Isidri, who taught them literature and religion and was the school planner, invited me to tell them about Hain, about NAFAL travel, about temporal physics, whatever I pleased. Visitors to ki’O farmholds are always put to use. Evening-Uncle Hideo became rather a favorite among the children, always good for hitching up the yama-cart or taking them fishing in the big boat, which they couldn’t yet handle, or telling a story about his magic mice who could be in two places at the same time. I asked them if Evening-Grandmother Isako had told them about the painted cat who came alive and killed the demon rats – “And his mouf was all BLUGGY in the morning!” shouted Lasako, her eyes shining. But they didn’t know the tale of Urashima.
“Why haven’t you told them ‘The Fisherman of the Inland Sea?’” I asked my mother.
She smiled and said, “Oh, that was your story. You always wanted it.”
I saw Isidri’s eyes on us, clear and tranquil, yet watchful still.
I knew my mother had had repair and healing to her heart a year before, and I asked Isidri later, as we supervised some work the older children were doing, “Has Isako recovered, do you think?”
“She seems wonderfully well since you came. I don’t know. It’s damage from her childhood, from the poisons in the Terran biosphere; they say her immune system is easily depressed. She was very patient about being ill. Almost too patient.”
“And Tubdu – does she need new lungs?”
“Probably. All four of them are getting older, and stubborner … But you look at Isako for me. See if you see what I mean.”
I tried to observe my mother. After a few days I reported back that she seemed energetic and decisive, even imperative, and that I hadn’t seen much of the patient endurance that worried Isidri. She laughed.
“Isako told me once,” she said, “that a mother is connected to her child by a very fine, thin cord, like the umbilical cord, that can stretch light-years without any difficulty. I asked her if it was painful, and she said, ‘Oh, no, it’s just there, you know, it stretches and stretches and never breaks.’ It seems to me it must be painful. But I don’t know. I have no child, and I’ve never been more than two days’ travel from my mothers.” She smiled and said in her soft, deep voice, “I think I love Isako more than anyone, more even than my mother, more even than Koneko…”
Then she had to show one of Suudi’s children how to reprogram the timer on the irrigation control. She was the hydrologist for the village and the oenologist for the farm. Her life was thick-planned, very rich in necessary work and wide relationships, a serene and steady succession of days, seasons, years. She swam in life as she had swum in the river, like a fish, at home. She had borne no child, but all the children of the farmhold were hers. She and Koneko were as deeply attached as their mothers had been. Her relation with her rather fragile, scholarly husband seemed peaceful and respectful. I thought his Night marriage with my old friend Sota might be the stronger sexual link, but Isidri clearly admired and depended on his intellectual and spiritual guidance. I thought his teaching a bit dry and disputatious; but what did I know about religion? I had not given worship for years, and felt strange, out of place, even in the home shrine. I felt strange, out of place, in my home. I did not acknowledge it to myself.
I was conscious of the month as pleasant, uneventful, even a little boring. My emotions were mild and dull. The wild nostalgia, the romantic sense of standing on the brink of my destiny, all that was gone with the Hideo of twenty-one. Though now the youngest of my generation, I was a grown man, knowing his way, content with his work, past emotional self-indulgence. I wrote a little poem for the house album about the peacefulness of following a chosen course. When I had to go, I embraced and kissed everyone, dozens of soft or harsh cheek-touches. I told them that if I stayed on O, as it seemed I might be asked to do for a year or so, I would come back next winter for another visit. On the train going back through the hills to Ran’n, I thought with a complacent gravity how I might return to the farm next winter, finding them all just the same; and how, if I came back after another eighteen years or even longer, some of them would be gone and some would be new to me and yet it would be always my home, Udan with its wide dark roofs riding time like a dark-sailed ship. I always grow poetic when I am lying to myself.
I got back to Ran’n, checked in with my people at the lab in Tower Hall, and had dinner with colleagues, good food and drink – I brought them a bottle of wine from Udan, for Isidri was making splendid wines, and had given me a case of the fifteen-year-old Kedun. We talked about the latest breakthrough in churten technology, “continuous-field sending,” reported from Anarres just yesterday on the ansible. I went to my rooms in the New Quadrangle through the summer night, my head full of physics, read a little, and went to bed. I turned out the light and darkness filled me as it filled the room. Where was I? Alone in a room among strangers. As I had been for ten years and would always be. On one planet or another, what did it matter? Alone, part of nothing, part of no one. Udan was not my home. I had no home, no people. I had no future, no destiny, any more than a bubble of foam or a whirlpool in a current has a destiny. It is and it isn’t. Nothing more.
I turned the light on because I could not bear the darkness, but the light was worse. I sat huddled up in the bed and began to cry. I could not stop crying. I became frightened at how the sobs racked and shook me till I was sick and weak and still could not stop sobbing. After a long time I calmed myself gradually by clinging to an imagination, a childish idea: in the morning I would call Isidri and talk to her, telling her that I needed instruction in religion, that I wanted to give worship at the shrines again, but it had been so long, and I had never listened to the Discussions, but now I needed to, and I would ask her, Isidri, to help me. So, holding fast to that, I could at last stop the terrible sobbing and lie spent, exhausted, until the day came.
I did not call Isidri. In daylight the thought which had saved me from the dark seemed foolish; and I thought if I called her she would ask advice of her husband, the religious scholar. But I knew I needed help. I went to the shrine in the Old School and gave worship. I asked for a copy of the First Discussions, and read it. I joined a Discussion group, and we read and talked together. My religion is godless, argumentative, and mystical. The name of our world is the first word of its first prayer. For human beings its vehicle is the human voice and mind. As I began to rediscover it, I found it quite as strange as churten theory and in some respects complementary to it. I knew, but had never understood, that Cetian physics and religion are aspects of one knowledge. I wondered if all physics and religion are aspects of one knowledge.
At night I never slept well and often could not sleep at all. After the bountiful tables of Udan, college food seemed poor stuff; I had no appetite. But our work, my work went well – wonderfully well.
“No more mouses,” said Gvonesh on the voice ansible from Hain. “Peoples.”
“What people?” I demanded.
“Me,” said Gvonesh.
So our Director of Research churtened from one corner of Laboratory One to another, and then from Building One to Building Two – vanishing in one laboratory and appearing in the other, smiling, in the same instant, in no time.
“What did it feel like?” they asked, of course, and Gvonesh answered, of course, “Like nothing.”
Many experiments followed; mice and gholes churtened halfway around Ve and back; robot crews churtened from Anarres to Urras, from Hain to Ve, and then from Anarres to Ve, twenty-two light-years. So, then, eventually the Shoby and her crew of ten human beings churtened into orbit around a miserable planet seventeen light-years from Ve and returned (but words that imply coming and going, that imply distance traveled, are not appropriate) thanks only to their intelligent use of entrainment, rescuing themselves from a kind of chaos of dissolution, a death by unreality, that horrified us all. Experiments with high-intelligence lifeforms came to a halt.
“The rhythm is wrong,” Gvonesh said on the ansible (she said it “rithkhom”). For a moment I thought of my mother saying, “It can’t be right to have event without interval.” What else had Isako said? Something about dancing. But I did not want to think about Udan. I did not think about Udan. When I did I felt, far down deeper inside me than my bones, the knowledge of being no one, no where, and a shaking like a frightened animal.
My religion reassured me that I was part of the Way, and my physics absorbed my despair in work. Experiments, cautiously resumed, succeeded beyond hope. The Terran Dalzul and his psychophysics took everyone at the research station on Ve by storm; I am sorry I never met him. As he predicted, using the continuity field he churtened without a hint of trouble, alone, first locally, then from Ve to Hain, then the great jump to Tadkla and back. From the second journey to Tadkla, his three companions returned without him. He died on that far world. It did not seem to us in the laboratories that his death was in any way caused by the churten field or by what had come to be known as “the churten experience,” though his three companions were not so sure.
“Maybe Dalzul was right. One people at a time,” said Gvonesh; and she made herself again the subject, the “ritual animal,” as the Hainish say, of the next experiment. Using continuity technology she churtened right around Ve in four skips, which took thirty-two seconds because of the time needed to set up the coordinates. We had taken to calling the ion-interval in time/real interval in space a “skip.” It sounded light, trivial. Scientists like to trivialize.
I wanted to try the improvement to double-field stability that I had been working on ever since I came to Ran’n. It was time to give it a test; my patience was short, life was too short to fiddle with figures forever. Talking to Gvonesh on the ansible I said, “I’ll skip over to Ve Port. And then back here to Ran’n. I promised a visit to my home farm this winter.” Scientists like to trivialize.
“You still got that wrinkle in your field?” Gvonesh asked. “Some kind, you know, like a fold?”
“It’s ironed out, ammar,” I assured her.
“Good, fine,” said Gvonesh, who never questioned what one said. “Come.”
So, then: we set up the fields in a constant stable churten link with ansible connection; and I was standing inside a chalked circle in the Churten Field Laboratory of Ran’n Center on a late autumn afternoon and standing inside a chalked circle in the Churten Research Station Field Laboratory in Ve Port on a late summer day at a distance of 4.2 light-years and no interval of time.
“Feel nothing?” Gvonesh inquired, shaking my hand heartily. “Good fellow, good fellow, welcome, ammar, Hideo. Good to see. No wrinkle, hah?”
I laughed with the shock and queerness of it, and gave Gvonesh the bottle of Udan Kedun ‘49 that I had picked up a moment ago from the laboratory table on O.
I had expected, if I arrived at all, to churten promptly back again, but Gvonesh and others wanted me on Ve for a while for discussions and tests of the field. I think now that the Director’s extraordinary intuition is at work; the “wrinkle,” the “fold” in the Tiokunan’n Field still bothered her. “Is unaesthetical,” she said.
“But it works,” I said.
“It worked,” said Gvonesh.
Except to retest my field, to prove its reliability, I had no desire to return to O. I was sleeping somewhat better here on Ve, although food was still unpalatable to me, and when I was not working I felt shaky and drained, a disagreeable reminder of my exhaustion after the night which I tried not to remember when for some reason or other I had cried so much. But the work went very well.
“You got no sex, Hideo?” Gvonesh asked me when we were alone in the Lab one day, I playing with a new set of calculations and she finishing her box lunch.
The question took me utterly aback. I knew it was not as impertinent as Gvonesh’s peculiar usage of the language made it sound. But Gvonesh never asked questions like that. Her own sex life was as much a mystery as the rest of her existence. No one had ever heard her mention the word, let alone suggest the act.
When I sat with my mouth open, stumped, she said, “You used to, hah,” as she chewed on a cold varvet.
I stammered something. I knew she was not proposing that she and I have sex, but inquiring after my well-being. But I did not know what to say.
“You got some kind of wrinkle in your life, hah,” Gvonesh said. “Sorry. Not my business.”
Wanting to assure her I had taken no offense I said, as we say on O, “I honor your intent.”
She looked directly at me, something she rarely did. Her eyes were clear as water in her long, bony face softened by a fine, thick, colorless down. “Maybe is time you go back to O?” she asked.
“I don’t know. The facilities here—”
She nodded. She always accepted what one said. “You read Harraven’s report?” she asked, changing one subject for another as quickly and definitively as my mother.
All right, I thought, the challenge was issued. She was ready for me to test my field again. Why not? After all, I could churten to Ran’n and churten right back again to Ve within a minute, if I chose, and if the Lab could afford it. Like ansible transmission, churtening draws essentially on inertial mass, but setting up the field, disinfecting it, and holding it stable in size uses a good deal of local energy. But it was Gvonesh’s suggestion, which meant we had the money. I said, “How about a skip over and back?”
Fine, Gvonesh said. “Tomorrow.”
So the next day, on a morning of late autumn, I stood inside a chalked circle in the Field Laboratory on Ve and stood—
A shimmer, a shivering of everything – a missed beat – skipped—
in darkness. A darkness. A dark room. The lab? A lab – I found the light panel. In the darkness I was sure it was the laboratory on Ve. In the light I saw it was not. I didn’t know where it was. I didn’t know where I was. It seemed familiar yet I could not place it. What was it? A biology lab? There were specimens, an old subparticle microscope, the maker’s ideogram on the battered brass casing, the lyre ideogram.… I was on O. In some laboratory in some building of the Center at Ran’n? It smelled like the old buildings of Ran’n, it smelled like a rainy night on O. But how could I have not arrived in the receiving field, the circle carefully chalked on the wood floor of the lab in Tower Hall? The field itself must have moved. An appalling, an impossible thought.
I was alarmed and felt rather dizzy, as if my body had skipped that beat, but I was not yet frightened. I was all right, all here, all the pieces in the right places, and the mind working. A slight spatial displacement? said the mind.
I went out into the corridor. Perhaps I had myself been disoriented and left the Churten Field Laboratory and come to full consciousness somewhere else. But my crew would have been there; where were they? And that would have been hours ago; it should have been just past noon on O when I arrived. A slight temporal displacement? said the mind, working away. I went down the corridor looking for my lab, and that is when it became like one of those dreams in which you cannot find the room which you must find. It was that dream. The building was perfectly familiar: it was Tower Hall, the second floor of Tower, but there was no Churten Lab. All the labs were biology and biophysics, and all were deserted. It was evidently late at night. Nobody around. At last I saw a light under a door and knocked and opened it on a student reading at a library terminal.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m looking for the Churten Field Lab—”
“The what lab?”
She had never heard of it, and apologized. “I’m not in Ti Phy, just Bi Phy,” she said humbly.
I apologized too. Something was making me shakier, increasing my sense of dizziness and disorientation. Was this the “chaos effect” the crew of the Shoby and perhaps the crew of the Galba had experienced? Would I begin to see the stars through the walls, or turn around and see Gvonesh here on O?
I asked her what time it was. “I should have got here at noon,” I said, though that of course meant nothing to her.
“It’s about one,” she said, glancing at the clock on the terminal. I looked at it too. It gave the time, the ten-day, the month, the year.
“That’s wrong,” I said.
She looked worried.
“That’s not right,” I said. “The date. It’s not right.” But I knew from the steady glow of the numbers on the clock, from the girl’s round, worried face, from the beat of my heart, from the smell of the rain, that it was right, that it was an hour after midnight eighteen years ago, that I was here, now, on the day after the day I called “once upon a time” when I began to tell this story.
A major temporal displacement, said the mind, working, laboring.
“I don’t belong here,” I said, and turned to hurry back to what seemed a refuge, Biology Lab 6, which would be the Churten Field Lab eighteen years from now, as if I could re-enter the field, which had existed or would exist for .004 second.
The girl saw that something was wrong, made me sit down, and gave me a cup of hot tea from her insulated bottle.
“Where are you from?” I asked her, the kind, serious student.
“Herdud Farmhold of Deada Village on the South Watershed of the Saduun,” she said.
“I’m from downriver,” I said. “Udan of Derdan’nad.” I suddenly broke into tears. I managed to control myself, apologized again, drank my tea, and set the cup down. She was not overly troubled by my fit of weeping. Students are intense people, they laugh and cry, they break down and rebuild. She asked if I had a place to spend the night: a perceptive question. I said I did, thanked her, and left.
I did not go back to the biology laboratory, but went downstairs and started to cut through the gardens to my rooms in the New Quadrangle. As I walked the mind kept working; it worked out that somebody else had been/would be in those rooms then/now.
I turned back towards the Shrine Quadrangle, where I had lived my last two years as a student before I left for Hain. If this was in fact, as the clock had indicated, the night after I had left, my room might still be empty and unlocked. It proved to be so, to be as I had left it, the mattress bare, the cyclebasket unemptied.
That was the most frightening moment. I stared at that cyclebasket for a long time before I took a crumpled bit of outprint from it and carefully smoothed it on the desk. It was a set of temporal equations scribbled on my old pocketscreen in my own handwriting, notes from Sedharad’s class in Interval, from my last term at Ran’n, day before yesterday, eighteen years ago.
I was now very shaky indeed. You are caught in a chaos field, said the mind, and I believed it. Fear and stress, and nothing to do about it, not till the long night was past. I lay down on the bare bunk-mattress, ready for the stars to burn through the walls and my eyelids if I shut them. I meant to try and plan what I should do in the morning, if there was a morning. I fell asleep instantly and slept like a stone till broad daylight, when I woke up on the bare bed in the familiar room, alert, hungry, and without a moment of doubt as to who or where or when I was.
I went down into the village for breakfast. I didn’t want to meet any colleagues – no, fellow students – who might know me and say, “Hideo! What are you doing here? You left on the Terraces of Darranda yesterday!”
I had little hope they would not recognize me. I was thirty-one now, not twenty-one, much thinner and not as fit as I had been; but my half-Terran features were unmistakable. I did not want to be recognized, to have to try to explain. I wanted to get out of Ran’n. I wanted to go home.
O is a good world to time-travel in. Things don’t change. Our trains have run on the same schedule to the same places for centuries. We sign for payment and pay in contracted barter or cash monthly, so I did not have to produce mysterious coins from the future. I signed at the station and took the morning train to Saduun Delta.
The little suntrain glided through the plains and hills of the South Watershed and then the Northwest Watershed, following the ever-widening river, stopping at each village. I got off in the late afternoon at the station in Derdan’nad. Since it was very early spring, the station was muddy, not dusty.
I walked out the road to Udan. I opened the road gate that I had re-hung a few days/eighteen years ago; it moved easily on its new hinges. That gave me a little gleam of pleasure. The she-yamas were all in the nursery pasture. Birthing would start any day; their woolly sides stuck out, and they moved like sailboats in a slow breeze, turning their elegant, scornful heads to look distrustfully at me as I passed. Rain clouds hung over the hills. I crossed the Oro on the humpbacked wooden bridge. Four or five great blue ochid hung in a backwater by the bridgefoot; I stopped to watch them; if I’d had a spear … The clouds drifted overhead trailing a fine, faint drizzle. I strode on. My face felt hot and stiff as the cool rain touched it. I followed the river road and saw the house come to view, the dark, wide roofs low on the tree-crowned hill. I came past the aviary and the collectors, past the irrigation center, under the avenue of tall bare trees, up the steps of the deep porch, to the door, the wide door of Udan. I went in.
Tubdu was crossing the hall – not the woman I had last seen, in her sixties, grey-haired and tired and fragile, but Tubdu of The Great Giggle, Tubdu at forty-five, fat and rosy-brown and brisk, crossing the hall with short, quick steps, stopping, looking at me at first with mere recognition, there’s Hideo, then with puzzlement, is that Hideo? and then with shock – that can’t be Hideo!
“Ombu,” I said, the baby word for othermother, “Ombu, it’s me, Hideo, don’t worry, it’s all right, I came back.” I embraced her, pressed my cheek to hers.
“But, but—” She held me off, looked up at my face. “But what has happened to you, darling boy?” she cried, and then, turning, called out in a high voice, “Isako! Isako!”
When my mother saw me she thought, of course, that I had not left on the ship to Hain, that my courage or my intent had failed me; and in her first embrace there was an involuntary reserve, a withholding. Had I thrown away the destiny for which I had been so ready to throw away everything else? I knew what was in her mind. I laid my cheek to hers and whispered, “I did go, mother, and I came back. I’m thirty-one years old. I came back—”
She held me away a little just as Tubdu had done, and saw my face. “Oh, Hideo!” she said, and held me to her with all her strength. “My dear, my dear!”
We held each other in silence, till I said at last, “I need to see Isidri.”
My mother looked up at me intently but asked no questions. “She’s in the shrine, I think.”
“I’ll be right back.”
I left her and Tubdu side by side and hurried through the halls to the central room, in the oldest part of the house, rebuilt seven centuries ago on the foundations that go back three thousand years. The walls are stone and clay, the roof is thick glass, curved. It is always cool and still there. Books line the walls, the Discussions, the discussions of the Discussions, poetry, texts and versions of the Plays; there are drums and whispersticks for meditation and ceremony; the small, round pool which is the shrine itself wells up from clay pipes and brims its blue-green basin, reflecting the rainy sky above the skylight. Isidri was there. She had brought in fresh boughs for the vase beside the shrine, and was kneeling to arrange them.
I went straight to her and said, “Isidri, I came back. Listen—”
Her face was utterly open, startled, scared, defenseless, the soft, thin face of a woman of twenty-two, the dark eyes gazing into me.
“Listen, Isidri: I went to Hain, I studied there, I worked on a new kind of temporal physics, a new theory – transilience – I spent ten years. Then we began experiments, I was in Ran’n and crossed over to the Hainish system in no time, using that technology, in no time, you understand me, literally, like the ansible – not at lightspeed, not faster light, but in no time. In one place and in another place instantaneously, you understand? And it went fine, it worked, but coming back there was … there was a fold, a crease, in my field. I was in the same place in a different time. I came back eighteen of your years, ten of mine. I came back to the day I left, but I didn’t leave, I came back, I came back to you.”
I was holding her hands, kneeling to face her as she knelt by the silent pool. She searched my face with her watchful eyes, silent. On her cheekbone there was a fresh scratch and a little bruise; a branch had lashed her as she gathered the evergreen boughs.
“Let me come back to you,” I said in a whisper.
She touched my face with her hand. “You look so tired,” she said. “Hideo … Are you all right?”
“Yes,” I said. “Oh, yes. I’m all right.”
And there my story, so far as it has any interest to the Ekumen or to research in transilience, comes to an end. I have lived now for eighteen years as a farmholder of Udan Farm of Derdan’nad Village of the hill region of the Northwest Watershed of the Saduun on Oket, on O. I am fifty years old. I am the Morning husband of the Second Sedoretu of Udan; my wife is Isidri; my Night marriage is to Sota of Drehe, whose Evening wife is my sister Koneko. My children of the Morning with Isidri are Latubdu and Tadri; the Evening children are Murmi and Lasako. But none of this is of much interest to the Stabiles of the Ekumen.
My mother, who had had some training in temporal engineering, asked for my story, listened to it carefully, and accepted it without question; so did Isidri. Most of the people of my farmhold chose a simpler and far more plausible story, which explained everything fairly well, my severe loss of weight and ten-year age gain overnight. At the very last moment, just before the space ship left, they said, Hideo decided not to go to the Ekumenical School on Hain after all. He came back to Udan, because he was in love with Isidri. But it had made him quite ill, because it was a very hard decision and he was very much in love.
Maybe that is indeed the true story. But Isidri and Isako chose a stranger truth.
Later, when we were forming our sedoretu, Sota asked me for that truth. “You aren’t the same man, Hideo, though you are the man I always loved,” he said. I told him why, as best I could. He was sure that Koneko would understand it better than he could, and indeed she listened gravely, and asked several keen questions which I could not answer.
I did attempt to send a message to the temporal physics department of the Ekumenical Schools on Hain. I had not been home long before my mother, with her strong sense of duty and her obligation to the Ekumen, became insistent that I do so.
“Mother,” I said, “what can I tell them? They haven’t invented churten theory yet!”
“Apologize for not coming to study, as you said you would. And explain it to the Director, the Anarresti woman. Maybe she would understand.”
“Even Gvonesh doesn’t know about churten yet. They’ll begin telling her about it on the ansible from Urras and Anarres about three years from now. Anyhow, Gvonesh didn’t know me the first couple of years I was there.” The past tense was inevitable but ridiculous; it would have been more accurate to say, “She won’t know me the first couple of years I won’t be there.”
Or was I there on Hain, now? That paradoxical idea of two simultaneous existences on two different worlds disturbed me exceedingly. It was one of the points Koneko had asked about. No matter how I discounted it as impossible under every law of temporality, I could not keep from imagining that it was possible, that another I was living on Hain, and would come to Udan in eighteen years and meet myself. After all, my present existence was also and equally impossible.
When such notions haunted and troubled me I learned to replace them with a different image: the little whorls of water that slid down between the two big rocks, where the current ran strong, just above the swimming bay in the Oro. I would imagine, those whirlpools forming and dissolving, or I would go down to the river and sit and watch them. And they seemed to hold a solution to my question, to dissolve it as they endlessly dissolved and formed.
But my mother’s sense of duty and obligation was unmoved by such trifles as a life impossibly lived twice. “You should try to tell them,’ she said.
She was right. If my double transilience field had established itself permanently, it was a matter of real importance to temporal science, not only to myself. So I tried. I borrowed a staggering sum in cash from the farm reserves, went up to Ran’n, bought a five-thousand-word ansible screen transmission, and sent a message to my director of studies at Ekumenical School, trying to explain why, after being accepted at the School, I had not arrived – if in fact I had not arrived.
I take it that this was the “creased message” or “ghost” they asked me to try to interpret, my first year there. Some of it is gibberish, and some words probably came from the other, nearly simultaneous transmission; parts of my name are in it, and other words may be fragments or reversals from my long message – problem, churten, return, arrived, time.
It is interesting, I think, that at the ansible center the Receivers used the word “creased” for a temporally disturbed transilient, as Gvonesh would use it for the anomaly, the “wrinkle” in my churten field. In fact, the ansible field was meeting a resonance resistance, caused by the ten-year anomaly in the churten field, which did fold the message back into itself, crumple it up, inverting and erasing. At that point, within the implication of the Tiokunan’n Double Field, my existence on O as I sent the message was simultaneous with my existence on Hain when the message was received. There was an I who sent and an I who received, so long as the encapsulated field anomaly existed, the simultaneity literally a point, an instant, a crossing without further implication in either the ansible or the churten field.
An image for the churten field in this case might be a river winding in its floodplain, winding in deep, redoubling curves, folding back upon itself so closely that at last the current breaks through the double banks of the S and runs straight, leaving a whole reach of the water aside as a curving lake, cut off from the current, unconnected. In this analogy, my ansible message would have been the one link, other than my memory, between the current and the lake.
But I think a truer image is the whirlpools of the current itself, occurring and recurring; the same? Or not the same?
I worked at the mathematics of an explanation in the early years of my marriage, while my physics was still in good working order. See the “Notes toward a Theory of Resonance Interference in Doubled Ansible and Churten Fields,” appended to this document. I realize that the explanation is probably irrelevant, since, on this stretch of the river, there is no Tiokunan’n Field. But independent research from an odd direction can be useful. And I am attached to it, since it is the last temporal physics I did. I have followed churten research with intense interest, but my life’s work has been concerned with vineyards, drainage, the care of yamas, the care and education of children, the Discussions, and trying to learn how to catch fish with my bare hands.
Working on that paper, I satisfied myself in terms of mathematics and physics that the existence in which I went to Hain and became a temporal physicist specializing in transilience was in fact encapsulated (enfolded, erased) by the churten effect. But no amount of theory or proof could quite allay my anxiety, my fear – which increased after my marriage and with the birth of each of my children – that there was a crossing point yet to come. For all my images of rivers and whirlpools, I could not prove that the encapsulation might not reverse at the instant of transilience. It was possible that on the day I churtened from Ve to Ran’n I might undo, lose, erase my marriage, our children, all my life at Udan, crumple it up like a bit of paper tossed into a basket. I could not endure that thought.
I spoke of it at last to Isidri, from whom I have only ever kept one secret.
“No,” she said, after thinking a long time, “I don’t think that can be. There was a reason, wasn’t there, that you came back – here.”
“You,” I said.
She smiled wonderfully. “Yes,” she said. She added after a while, “And Sota, and Koneko, and the farmhold … But there’d be no reason for you to go back there, would there?”
She was holding our sleeping baby as she spoke; she laid her cheek against the small silky head.
“Except maybe your work there,” she said. She looked at me with a little yearning in her eyes. Her honesty required equal honesty of me.
“I miss it sometimes,” I said. “I know that. I didn’t know that I was missing you. But I was dying of it. I would have died and never known why, Isidri. And anyhow, it was all wrong – my work was wrong.”
“How could it have been wrong, if it brought you back?” she said, and to that I had no answer at all.
When information on churten theory began to be published I subscribed to whatever the Center Library of O received, particularly the work done at the Ekumenical Schools and on Ve. The general progress of research was just as I remembered, racing along for three years, then hitting the hard places. But there was no reference to a Tiokunan’n Hideo doing research in the field. Nobody worked on a theory of a stabilized double field. No churten field research station was set up at Ran’n.
At last it was the winter of my visit home, and then the very day; and I will admit that, all reason to the contrary, it was a bad day. I felt waves of guilt, of nausea. I grew very shaky, thinking of the Udan of that visit, when Isidri had been married to Hedran, and I a mere visitor.
Hedran, a respected traveling scholar of the Discussions, had in fact come to teach several times in the village. Isidri had suggested inviting him to stay at Udan. I had vetoed the suggestion, saying that though he was a brilliant teacher there was something I disliked about him. I got a sidelong flash from Sidi’s clear dark eyes: Is he jealous? She suppressed a smile. When I told her and my mother about my “other life,” the one thing I had left out, the one secret I kept, was my visit to Udan. I did not want to tell my mother that in that “other life” she had been very ill. I did not want to tell Isidri that in that “other life” Hedran had been her Evening husband and she had had no children of her body. Perhaps I was wrong, but it seemed to me that I had no right to tell these things, that they were not mine to tell.
So Isidri could not know that what I felt was less jealousy than guilt, I had kept knowledge from her. And I had deprived Hedran of a life with Isidri, the dear joy, the center, the life of my own life.
Or had I shared it with him? I didn’t know. I don’t know.
That day passed like any other, except that one of Suudi’s children broke her elbow falling out of a tree. “At least we know she won’t drown,” said Tubdu, wheezing.
Next came the date of the night in my rooms in the New Quadrangle, when I had wept and not known why I wept. And a while after that, the day of my return, transilient, to Ve, carrying a bottle of Isidri’s wine for Gvonesh. And finally, yesterday, I entered the churten field on Ve, and left it eighteen years ago on O. I spent the night, as I sometimes do, in the shrine. The hours went by quietly; I wrote, gave worship, meditated, and slept. And I woke beside the pool of silent water.
So, now: I hope the Stabiles will accept this report from a farmer they never heard of, and that the engineers of transilience may see it as at least a footnote to their experiments. Certainly it is difficult to verify, the only evidence for it being my word, and my otherwise almost inexplicable knowledge of churten theory. To Gvonesh, who does not know me, I send my respect, my gratitude, and my hope that she will honor my intent.