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06.03.02

 
the seasons of the ansarac
 
by Ursula K. Le Guin
 

part 2

  illustration
 

And he will be the last of Shuku's children. She and her husband will make love still, whenever they please, in all the delight and ease of the time of flowering and the time of fruit, in the warm days and the mild nights, in the cool under the trees and out in the buzzing heat of the meadow in summer noontime, but it will be, as they say, luxury love; nothing will come of it but love itself.

Children are born to the Ansarac only in the early Northern spring, soon after they have returned to their birthplace. Some couples bring up four children, and many three; but often, if the first two thrive, there is no second conception.

"You are spared our curse of overbreeding," I said to Kergemmeg when he had told me all this. And he agreed, when I told him a little about my plane.

But he did not want me to think that an Ansar has no real sexual or reproductive choice at all. Pairbonding is the rule, but but human will and contrariness change and bend and break it, and he talked about those exceptions. Many pairbonds are between two men or two women. Such couples and others who are childless are often given a baby by a couple who have three or four, or take on an orphaned child and bring it up. There are people who take no mate and people who take several mates at one time or in sequence. There is of course adultery. And there is rape. It is bad to be a girl among the last migrants coming up from the South, for the sexual drive is already strong in such stragglers, and young women are all too often gang-raped and arrive at their birthplace brutalised, mateless, and pregnant. A man who finds no mate or is dissatisfied with his wife may leave home and go off as a peddler of needles and thread or a tool-sharpener and tinker; such wanderers are welcomed for their goods but mistrusted as to their motives.

When we had talked together through several of those glimmering purple evenings on the verandah in the soft sea breeze, I asked Kergemmeg about his own life. He had followed Madan, the rule, the way, in all respects but one, he said. He mated after his first migration north. His wife bore two children, both from the first conception, a girl and a boy, who of course went south with them in due time. The whole family rejoined for his second migration north, and both children had married close by, so that he knew his five grandchildren well. He and his wife had spent most of their third season in the South in different cities; she, a teacher of astronomy, had gone farther south to the Observatory, while he stayed in Terke Keter to study with a group of philosophers. She had died very suddenly of a heart attack. He had attended her funeral. Soon after that he made the trek back north with his son and grandchildren. "I didn't miss her till I came back home," he said, factually. "But to come there to our house, to live there without her — that wasn't something I could do. I happened to hear that someone was needed to greet the strangers on this island. I had been thinking about the best way to die, and this seemed a sort of halfway point. An island in the middle of the ocean, with not another soul of my own people on it… not quite life, not quite death. The idea amused me. So I am here." He was well over three Ansar years old; getting on for eighty in our years, though only the slight stoop of his shoulders and the pure silver of his crest showed his age.

The next night he told me about the southern migration, describing how a man of the Ansarac feels as the warm days of the northern summer begin to wane and shorten. All the work of harvest is done, the grain stored in airtight bins for next year, the slow-growing edible roots planted to winter through and be ready in the spring; the children are shooting up tall, active, increasingly restless and bored by life on the homeplace, more and more inclined to wander off and make friends with the neighbors' children. Life is sweet here, but the same, always the same, and luxury love has lost its urgency. One night, a cloudy night with a chill in the air, your wife in bed next to you sighs and murmurs, "You know? I miss the city." And it comes back to you in a great wave of light and warmth — the crowds, the deep streets and high houses packed with people, the Year Tower high above it all — the sports arenas blazing with sunlight, the squares at night full of lantern-lights and music where you sit at the café tables and drink ü and talk and talk till halfway to morning — the old friends, friends you haven't thought of all this time — and strangers — how long has it been since you saw a new face? How long since you heard a new idea, had a new thought? Time for the city, time to follow the sun!

"Dear," the mother says, "we can't take all your rock collection south, just pick out the most special ones," and the child protests, "But I'll carry them! I promise!" Forced at last to yield, she finds a special, secret place for her rocks till she comes back, never imagining that by next year, when she comes back home, she won't care about her childish rock collection, and scarcely aware that she has begun to think constantly of the great journey and the unknown lands ahead. The city! What do you do in the city? Are there rock collections?

"Yes," Father says. "In the museum. Very fine collections. They'll take you to see all the museums when you're in school."

School?

"You'll love it," Mother says with absolute certainty.

"School is the best good time in the world," says Aunt Kekki. "I loved school so much I think I'm going to teach school, this year."

The migration south is quite a different matter from the migration north. It is not a scattering but a grouping, a gathering. It is not haphazard but orderly, planned by all the families of a region for many days beforehand. They all set off together, five or ten or fifteen families, and camp together at night. They bring plenty of food with them in handcarts and barrows, cooking utensils, fuel for fires in the treeless plains, warm clothing for the mountain passes, and medicines for illness along the way.

There are no old people on the southward migration — nobody over seventy or so in our years. Those who have made three migrations stay behind. They group together in farmsteads or the small towns that have grown around the farmsteads, or they live out the end of their life with their mate, or alone, in the house where they lived the springs and summers of their lives. (I think what Kergemmeg meant, when he said he had followed his people's Way in all ways but one, was that he had not stayed home, but had come to the island.) The "winter parting," as it is called, between the young going south and the old staying home is painful. It is stoical. It is as it must be.

Only those who stay behind will ever see the glory of autumn in the Northern lands, the blue length of dusk, the first faint patterns of ice on the lake. Some have made paintings or left letters describing these things for the children and grandchildren they will not see again. Most die before the long, long darkness and cold of winter. None survive it.

Each migrating group, ss they come down towards the Middle Land, is joined by others coming from east and west, till at night the twinkle of campfires covers all the great prairie from horizon to horizon. They sing at the campfires, and the quiet singing hovers in the darkness between the little fires and the stars.

They don't hurry on the southward journey. They drift along easily, not far each day, though they keep moving. As they reach the foothills of the mountains the great masses split apart again onto many different paths, thinning out, for it's pleasanter to be few on a trail than to come after great numbers of people and trudge in the dust and litter they leave. Up in the heights and passes where there are only a few ways to go they have to come together again. They make the best of it, with cheerful greetings and offers to share food, fire, shelter. Everyone is kind to the children, the half-year-olds, who find the steep mountain paths hard going and often frightening; they slow their pace for the children.

And one evening when it seems they have been struggling in the mountains forever, they come through a high, stony pass to the outlook — South Face, or the Godsbeak Rocks, or the Tor. There they stand and look out and out and down and down to the golden, sunlit levels of the South, the endless fields of wild grain, and some far, faint, purple smudges — the walls and towers of the Cities Under the Sun.

On the downhill road they go faster, and eat lighter, and the dust of their going is a great cloud behind them.

They come to the cities — there are nine of them; Terke Keter is the largest — standing full of sand and silence and sunlight. They pour in through the gates and doors, they fill the streets, they light the lanterns, they draw water from the brimming wells, they throw their bedding down in empty rooms, they shout from window to window and from roof to roof.

Life in the cities is so different from life in the homesteads that the children can't believe it; they are disturbed and dubious; they disapprove. It is so noisy, they complain. It's hot. There isn't anywhere to be alone, they say. They weep, the first nights, from homesickness. But they go off to school as soon as the schools are organised, and there they meet everybody else their age, all of them disturbed and dubious and disapproving and shy and eager and wild with excitement. Back home, they all learned to read and write and do arithmetic, just as they learned carpentry and farming, taught by their parents; but here are advanced classes, libraries, museums, galleries of art, concerts of music, teachers of art, of literature, of mathematics, of astronomy, of architecture, of philosophy — here are sports of all kinds, games, gymnastics, and somewhere in the city every night there is a round dance — above all, here is everybody else in the world, all crowded into these yellow walls, all meeting and talking and working and thinking together in an endless ferment of mind and occupation.

The parents seldom stay together in the cities. Life there is not lived by twos, but in groups. They drift apart, following friends, pursuits, professions, and see each other now and then. The children stay at first with one parent or the other, but after a while they too want to be on their own and go off to live in one of the warrens of young people, the communal houses, the dormitories of the colleges. Young men and women live together, as do grown men and women. Gender is not of much import where there is no sexuality.

For they do everything under the sun in the Cities Under the Sun, except make love.

They love, they hate, they learn, they make, they think hard, work hard, play; they enjoy passionately and suffer desperately, they live a full and human life, and they never give a thought to sex — unless, as Kergemmeg said with a perfect poker face, they are philosophers.

Their achievements, their monuments as a people, are all in the Cities under the Sun, whose towers and public buildings, as I saw in a book of drawings Kergemmeg showed me, vary from stern purity to fervent magnificence. Their books are written there, their thought and religion took form there over the centuries. Their history, their continuity as a culture, is all there.

Their continuity as living beings is what they see to in the North.

Kergemmeg said that while they are in the South they do not miss their sexuality at all. I had to take him at his word, which was given, hard as it might be for us to imagine, simply as a statement of fact.

And as I try to tell here what he told me, it seems wrong to describe their life in the cities as celibate or chaste: for those words imply a forced or willed resistance to desire. Where there is no desire there is no resistance, no abstinence, but rather what one might call, in a radical sense of the word, innocence. They don't think about sex, they don't miss it, it is a non-problem. Their marital life is an empty memory to them, meaningless. If a couple stays together or meets often in the South it is because they are uncommonly good friends — because they love each other. But they love their other friends too. They never live separately from other people. There is little privacy in the great apartment houses of the cities — nobody cares about it. Life there is communal, active, sociable, gregarious, and full of pleasures.

But slowly the days grow warmer; the air dryer; there is a restlessness in the air. The shadows begin to fall differently. And the crowds gather in the streets to hear the Year Priests announce the solstice and watch the sun stop, and pause, and turn south.

People leave the cities, one here, a couple there, a family there… It has begun to stir again, that soft hormonal buzz in the blood, that first vague yearning intimation or memory, the body's knowledge of its kingdom coming.

The young people follow that knowledge blindly, without knowing they know it. The married couples are drawn back together by all their wakened memories, intensely sweet. To go home, to go home and be there together!

All they learned and did all those thousands of days and nights in the cities is left behind them, packed up, put away. Till they come back South again…

"That is why it was easy to turn us aside," Kergemmeg said. " Because our lives in the North and the South are so different that they seem, to you others, incoherent, incomplete. And we cannot connect them rationally. We cannot explain or justify our Madan to those who live only one kind of life. When the Bayderac came to our plane, they told us our Way was mere instinct and that we lived like animals. We were ashamed."

(I later checked Kergemmeg's "Bayderac" in the Encyclopedia Planaria, where I found an entry for the Beidr, of the Unon Plane, an aggressive and enterprising people with highly advanced material technologies, who have been in trouble more than once with the Interplanary Agency for interfering on other planes. The tourist guidebook gives them the symbols that mean "of special interest to engineers, computer programmers, and systems analysts.")

Kergemmeg spoke of them with a kind of pain. It changed his voice, tightened it. He had been a child when they arrived — the first visitors, as it happened, from another plane. He had thought about them the rest of his life.

"They told us we should take control over our lives. We should not live two separate half-lives, but live fully all the time, all the year, as all intelligent beings did. They were a great people, full of knowledge, with high sciences and great ease and luxury of life. To them we truly were little more than animals. They told us and showed us how other people lived on other planes. We saw we were foolish to do without the pleasure of sex for half our life. We saw we were foolish to spend so much time and energy going between South and North on foot, when we could make ships, or roads and cars, or airplanes, and go back and forth a hundred times a year if we liked. We saw we could build cities in the North and make homesteads in the South. Why not? Our Madan was wasteful and irrational, a mere animal impulse controlling us. All we had to do to be free of it was take the medicines the Bayderac gave us. And our children need not take medicines, but could have their being altered by the genetic science of Bayder. Then we could be without rest from sexual desire until we got very old, like the Bayderac. And then a woman would be able to get pregnant at any time before her menopause — in the South, even. And the number of her children would not be limited… They were eager to give us these medicines. We knew their doctors were wise. As soon as they came to us they had given us treatments for some of our illnesses, that cured people as if by a miracle. They knew so much. We saw them fly about in their airplanes, and envied them, and were ashamed.

"They brought machines for us. We tried to drive the cars they gave us on our narrow, rocky roads. They sent engineers to direct us, and we began to build a huge Highway straight through the Middle Land. We blew up mountains with the explosives the Bayderac gave us so the Highway could run wide and level, south to north and north to south. My father was a workman on the Highway. There were thousands of men working on that road, for a while. Men from the southern homesteads… Only men. Women were not asked to go and do that work. Bayder women did not do such work. It was not women's work, they told us. Women were to stay home with the children while men did the work."

Kergemmeg sipped his ü thoughtfully and gazed off at the glimmering sea and the star-dusted sky.

"Women went down from the homesteads and talked to the men," he said. "They said to listen to them, not only to the Bayderac… Perhaps women don't feel shame the way men do. Perhaps their shame is different, more a matter of the body than the mind. It seemed they didn't care much for the cars and airplanes and bulldozers, but cared a great deal about the medicines that would change us and the rules about who did which kind of work. After all, with us, the woman bears the child, but both parents feed it, both nurture it. Why should a child be left to the mother only? They asked that. How could a woman alone bring up four children? Or more than four children? It was inhuman. And then, in the cities, why should families stay together? The child doesn't want its parents then, the parents don't want the child, they all have other things to do… The women talked about this to us men, and with them we tried to talk about it to the Bayderac.

"They said, 'All that will change. You will see. You cannot reason correctly. It is merely an effect of your hormones, your genetic programming, which we will correct. Then you will be free of your irrational and useless behavior patterns.'

"But we answered, 'But will we be free of your irrational and useless behavior patterns?'

"Men working on the Highway began throwing down their tools and abandoning the big machines the Bayderac had provided. They said, 'What do we need this Highway for when we have a thousand ways of our own?' And they set off southward on those old paths and trails.

"You see, all this happened — fortunately, I think — near the end of a Northern Season. In the North, where we all live apart, and so much of life is spent in courting and making love and bringing up the children, we were — how shall I put it — more short-sighted, more impressionable, more vulnerable. We had just begun the drawing together, then. When we came to the South, when we were all in the Cities Under the Sun, we could gather, take counsel together, argue and listen to arguments, and consider what was best for us as a people.

"After we had done that, and had talked further with the Bayderac and let them talk to us, we called for a Great Consensus, such as is spoken of in the legends and the ancient records of the Year Towers where history is kept. Every Ansar came to the Year Tower of their city and voted on this choice: Shall we follow the Bayder Way or the Manad? If we followed their Way, they were to stay among us; if we chose our own, they were to go. We chose our way." His beak clattered very softly as he laughed. "I was a halfyearling, that season. I cast my vote."

I did not have to ask how he had voted, but I asked if the Bayderac had been willing to go.

"Some of them argued, some of them threatened," he said. "They talked about their wars and their weapons. I am sure they could have destroyed us utterly. But they did not. Maybe they despised us so much they didn't want to bother. Or their wars called them away. By then we had been visited by people from the Interplanary Agency, and most likely it was their doing that the Bayderac left us in peace. Enough of us had been alarmed that we agreed then, in another voting, that we wanted no more visitors. So now the Agency sees to it that they come only to this island. I am not sure we made the right choice, there. Sometimes I think we did, sometimes I wonder. Why are we afraid of other peoples, other Ways? They can't all be like the Bayderac."

"I think you made the right choice," I said. "But I say it against my will. I'd like so much to meet an Ansar woman, to meet your children, to see the Cities Under the Sun! I'd like so much to see your dancing!"

"Oh, well, that you can see," he said, and stood up. Maybe we had had a little more ü than usual, that night.

He stood very tall there in the glimmering darkness on the verandah over the beach. He straightened his shoulders, and his head went back. The crest on his head slowly rose into a stiff plume, silver in the starlight. He lifted his arms above his head. It was the pose of the antique Spanish dancer, fiercely elegant, tense, and masculine. He did not leap, he was after all a man of eighty, but he gave somehow the impression of a leap, then a deep graceful bow. His beak clicked out a quick double rhythm, he stamped twice, and his feet seemed to flicker in a complex set of steps while his upper body remained taut and straight. Then his arms came out in a great embracing gesture, towards me, as I sat almost terrified by the beauty and intensity of his dance.

And then he stopped, and laughed. He was out of breath. He sat down and passed his hand over his forehead and his crest, panting a little. "After all," he said, "it isn't courting season."

 

To the Ospreys of McKenzie Bridge, whose lifestyle inspired this story
        — Ursula K. Le Guin

 

[ Part 1 ]    [ Part 2 ]


Over the past 40 years, from her desk in Portland, Oregon, Ursula Le Guin has written stories, novels, essays, and poetry. She has translated the Tao Te Ching. She has nurtured readers and other writers in myriad ways. She has extended the horizons of science fiction: we can all see further now.

Her most recent works are a new collection, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories, and a children's book, Tom Mouse, both published in March, 2002. They will be followed in September, 2002, by Changing Planes, a collection of sociological sketches of other worlds and their cultures. "The Seasons of the Ansarac" will be included in that collection.

In an interview with Nick Gevers on SFSite, Ursula commented on the Changing Planes stories: "I have been afraid people might find them infuriating. They certainly exemplify my fine disregard for plot. Perhaps they will puzzle some of my critics, who treat my work as if it had all the comic possibilities of a lead ingot."

So, readers, you have been warned. If you are not bringing a sense of humor with you when reading "The Seasons of the Ansarac," be very careful not to drop it on your foot.

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