Harth rem ir Estevan is Dead
i. Harth rem ir Estevan
Harth rem ir Estevan is dead. It is the first time that I have read The Left Hand of Darkness, and I find that I have fallen for the brisk, deep honor of its principal nation, Karhide, and the empirical myth of its glacial world, Winter. In this place that LeGuin has created, an immaculately curated, textured oral tradition sits with craft and tact, unfurling honor clean and easy like butter. The progress of Karhide recognizes the procedural as a means of vision: Karhide’s revolution pretends not to embrace the new at all, but really makes subtle advancement, knitting itself in the extremes of cold which characterize the world’s climate. Karhide realizes that powers which cannot be challenged by daring to question are brought to heel by a deft, intuitive combination of emergent pattern and a code of hospitality.
Harth rem ir Estevan is perhaps the most Karhidish of all the Karhiders, a skillful politician whose honor is full of plumage and roots and whose tongue is too skinned and swathed in epic for him to be anything but a poet. He is a mad seeker of adventure and a meticulous preparer of expedition to extremes. He is a rare creature who both loves and politics, whose visions of song and intergalactic treaty are one and the same. He makes a craft of himself, with a precision and devotion to his iconoclastic visions (which he would claim are not revolution but simply an unveiling of what has always been there) in a dance of survival at the edge of his world. He knows the coursing keen of a well-cooked meal, and the honor in the geometry of desire—sexual and tactile and gustatory—after a trying journey, and the hard sport of dreaming.
I speak to him with a fluency which I do not know in the world of my birth, a fluency that I do not share with all the people who defecate and talk about things like baby showers and weed. I know that Estevan and Winter are appendages of a different world—one which I belong to more wholly than where my flesh rests. I am on Buddhist meditative retreat in the mountains of Kathmandu, and a sickness untreated brings old damage kicking into my systems, and it is even easier than usual to retreat from the wreck of my body and into the place in my mind where my words are clear and powerful and where Harth rem ir Estevan runs at my side.
And then it is too soon the end of the book in which his world has found translation-gate, and he goes gliding on the glass snow, elegant quick white-runner that he is, and then there is the liquid sibilant of gunfire on the palate and to say that he is dead is not it but again it is a thing and the thing
what have they done?
what have they done?
and I know it, I know it, but the question tells me more than the answer; the question contains its own darkness as recourse to the light it sheds while the answer does not. Harth rem ir Estevan taught me how to prepare for an expedition to the frequencies within the ice and other extremes of the human condition. He showed me words I did not know could exist for a language which I did not have to teach him. He walked with me in my bare feet along the Nepali mountains to gather ideas for translation in the language I am creating, a conlang just like Klingon or Dothraki but as a vehicle for my world and my Winter.
It is not a statement; it is a state.
I recite it in place of the mantras to Mañjuśrī and Śākyamuni when in refuge and dedication, and meditate upon it, visualizing it vestigial in the letters of my language and in the things that look like seal fat which twist behind words when I am feeling strongly in the world of my birth but am watching from the Winter-world of my hearth and heart.
Harth rem ir Estevan is dead.
* * *
I am painting fifteen bamboo leaves in the way of old things because this is what I know: how to defrock the sturdy lattices that chase each other up the slopes of the mountain upon which our retreat site, Asura Cave, is perched. I know how to crouch on a balcony which looks out over the valley and the mountains which are boiling in the morning clouds (in my language, the word for the clouds is lü). Each leaf is daubed with its own letter, a letter of my invented tongue, in crusted red paint, and set to dry in the humid monsoon air. The leaves will be used later, perhaps for divination.
There is a sound of the stairs being scaled—it is Ben, who is a fellow student on retreat with a gangly body and a guitar and a predilection for the analytic philosophers. He comes to sit on the balcony and stare at the lü and drum his fingers on his knees to a song wringing out wet limbs in his head, as he does. He is not next to me, but he stopped and looked at me before sitting. If he had not wanted to share this space—if he had not wished to share this space with me—he would have gone to the meditation room, a flight downstairs, I think. Or at least that is what I would have done in the tongue I speak. I focus on my painting.
I am done painting. I feel the curiosity of his gaze as I step out into the stroking rain to wash my brush in a puddle that has formed at the edge of the balcony, taking my time to ensure that the bristles bleed red, then pink. There is a dead moth serving as a minute coracle for the raindrops on its back; I push it around to test the speed of its dead wings. I am fascinated by running the brush’s color dry and the fluid dynamics of this frozen moth, but it is possible that I stay with the two a bit longer, poke a bit more decisively, than I would have if my investigation was not suddenly a performance. I am studying the board for more strategies than one, too, counting the lay of discrete squares and checking the limits of my own movement. I rise from my crouch and swift my way to sit on the ground next to Ben’s chair. His move.
I want to tell him that Harth rem ir Estevan is dead.
I want to tell him that we are playing chess, and that I hope he sees that, and that I want him to make the right move in response.
I want to ask him how he would feel if I kissed him.
But I do not have the words for these things, and it is his move anyway, so I write them in my notebook in the language I have created. His gaze trips over my shoulder, moving lightly enough that he thinks I do not see, but he cannot read what I am writing. I have not taught him these letters. He sits for a minute, two, and then rises from his chair to move down the stairs, towards the meditation room. I do not know whether he was uncomfortable the whole time and thought that now finally a polite interval had passed to make his escape. I do not know whether he knew it was his move. I do not know whether he wanted to respond.
[Harth rem ir Estevan is dead]
* * *
I receive a text from my partner, Danny, a world away. He is acting in a Renaissance Faire in the middle of America in the summer between years at university. In the land of the free, he says, there have been two mass shootings in as many days. I did not know this. I have not had access to the internet while on retreat, and even if I did, I would not use it. These massacres weigh heavily on my partner. Yet he did not give into despair. As he tells it, “I was not made impotent. I taught today about alchemy and hopefully helped [patrons of the Renaissance Faire] understand the world of a people who constituted their world in an entirely different way. A stone thrown in the face of those who perpetrate violence and a reminder to them and myself that I am forging a sword.” I am invited, by this message and the love for him and the world I have felt and will likely feel again, to be proud of my partner for fighting against the darkness in him and in his home. I am invited to bear witness to the weight of bodies slamming against the floor of an El Paso Wal-Mart, bear the fine letters which make a life as they spill out like sand from inelegant holes. But I am watching these invitations unfurl from the rich shoulders of Winter, a world which is my own but which I was not born into, and I can see that to take them up would require translation. I would have to enter the world of my birth and body which does not seem to take to my words.
Translation makes the vividness of Estevan less. I am a translation, living the Winter of my mind and its harsh clean song of honor into this one, changeling child ever-always. Every other human is translation of their worlds to this one, but their worlds are simply closer, or they are willing to sacrifice more in the process of translation. They are the translators alone. I am just as much the translated.
My partner reaches out from across the globe: he misses me; he is alchemizing his rage and grief; he is looking forward to my homecoming in just six days. I rest my head on Estevan’s shoulder, feel his coarse long hair rub cat’s tongue against my cheek, and then his hand on the small of my back, sparking with the heat and clear freedom of the glacial plane; liberation by the vivid quietude of experience. The dead and loved are bleeding themselves out in bullets that look like words, or so I am told. But Harth rem ir Estevan is dead.