The Riverbed of the World

By B. C. Holmes

The morning sun beat down on us as we worked our way down the side of the mountain. "Here," Kolay said, motioning toward a crooked side trail. "Few people use this path. There will be privacy."

The grass-like plant that covered the ground was green and spongy, and it could be slippery in the morning dew. You'd swear the stuff was fake; I called it astro-sponge. The trees, the bushes -- everything looked vaguely unreal. The rocks were just like Earth rocks. Perhaps a bit more red than I would have expected.

Kolay pointed out a plant: "Don't touch that one; it causes a rash." Teesha equivalent of poison ivy, I guessed.

Finally, we came to the river. There were rocks, and moderate rapids, and deep areas where the water pooled before continuing on downstream. Maju and Galla stripped off their clothes and wandered upstream a bit; Galla had talked about wanting to ride the rapids. Kolay opened her backpack and took out a bottle of water.

"Thirsty?" she asked.

"No," I said. I fumbled nervously with my shirt buttons for a few moments, and finally ended up standing there in my bathing suit. Kolay, like Maju and Galla, was now naked; she stepped carefully among the wet rocks. Me, I was too North American to be completely comfortable with being naked, and I tried not to seem self-conscious about being the only one wearing a bathing suit.

Kolay leaned down and picked something out of the water. As she came toward me, I found myself clandestinely looking at her body. She didn't have the scars that I would have expected. Me, I had scars above my vulva, just barely hidden by my pubic hair, and a horizontal scar on the underside of each breast. Kolay didn't, not that I could see, and I wondered about Teesha medical procedures.

I held out my hand and she passed something to me: a piece of glass, worn smooth by the water.

"You have this on your world, yes?" she asked.

"Glass? Yeah," I said.

"It starts as sand," she said. "We fuse the sand into something we call glass, and then the water breaks it down into sand again." She paused while I turned the piece over in my hands. I could see how the water was wearing it away, mote by mote.

"When does it stop being glass," she asked finally, "and when does it become sand?"

I remember when Kolay first introduced me to Galla.

"Beth," Kolay said, "I want you to meet my colleague." She pointed at my translator. "You may want to use that," she said. "Galla's accent is heavy." My fluency with the language had been improving, but it wasn't perfect.

Her companion bowed, then said, "I am Valat geeta Gallanaru, a priestess of Seata, and a junior member of the hagiographer's guild. I am called Galla by friends and I hope to count you as a friend." Galla, unlike the other priestesses and priests at the temple, was Syleen. The lithe, fur-covered aliens were common in most of the Empire, but less common here on the Teesh homeworld. I hadn't had much opportunity to talk, face-to-face, with actual non-humanoid aliens, and I wanted to stare. I was fascinated by the way both the upper and lower parts of Galla's jaw were hinged. And Galla's tail. Not the fact that she had a tail, which I took in stride, but the wide assortment of tail jewelry she sported -- stuff that was clearly made specifically for the tail.

I tried to seem blasé; I don't know if I succeeded.

"I am Bethany Lydia Palmer," I said, in the formal style of the Teesha, "a Terran and a visitor to your Empire. I would be honored if you called me Beth." Before coming to the Holy Empire, I had only said that whole name out loud a few times in my life, and it still felt a bit odd. I remember, years ago, revealing my new name on the phone to my brother's wife: "That's a frou-frou name," she said. I could always count on her to be honest with me.

"Terran," Galla said. "Kolay explained this. You're not Teesha."

"No," I replied.

"You look Teesha," she said.

"Terrans and Teesha seem to have the same physiology," I said. "Nobody knows why."

Kolay smiled. "The gods have their reasons," she said, in a tone that could almost qualify as banter. This was getting to be a common debate between us.

"The gods seem to have favored processes that are understandable by science," I countered.

"Where is planet Terran?" Galla asked.

"Earth," I corrected. "At the most rimward border of imperial space. We were only just recently discovered."

"That's a long trip," she said, and I nodded.

"Beth is interested in people's brains," Kolay said, teasingly.

I shot her a dirty look. "I'm writing my Ph.D. thesis in neurobiological psychology. I'm researching gender differences in the brain." Galla gave me the same blank expression that just about everyone else on this world had given me. "Despite a lot of criticism of this point of view," I elaborated, "I continue to believe that men and women think differently. My experience as a transsexual reinforces that belief. There's a field of neurobio psych that has been looking for gender-specific differences in the brain that would account for differences in the way men and women think."

"And when you look at brains," Galla asked, "are there differences?"

"Some research appears to have found gender-based differences in areas like the corpus callosum and the hippocampus but" -- I shrugged -- "that research hasn't shown causation. I mean, we know that people's brains change in response to our experiences. So we don't know if those differences are the root of gendered behavior, or the result of it."

"So why have you come to the Holy Empire?" Galla said.

My face reddened. "Intellectual laziness, I guess. Your society is considerably more advanced than ours in many fields of science. And, like I said, Terrans and Teesha seem to have the same physiology. I figured that you had already answered these questions. This is, y'know, the kind of research that would help explain a lot about transsexualism."

"Suppose you were me," Kolay said to Galla, "and a foreigner came to you to ask why there are transsexuals in the world. What would you say?"

Galla smiled. "I would say that people are transsexuals because they have been chosen by the gods." Kolay nodded; it was exactly what she'd said to me when I arrived. Thing is, it doesn't appear that anyone in Teesha society has bothered looking for any other explanation. For them, changing sex is adequately explained by religion; they don't feel any need for a neurobiological answer.

A while later, Galla went off to do some tasks, and Kolay hovered around as I was working on my computer.

"You know," she said, "I watch you when you talk about your thesis. You would have us think that your questions are all up here" -- she pointed to her head -- "when, in truth, a lot of them come from in here" -- yeah, she pointed to her heart.

I almost groaned. There was something hokey about the entire exchange. "You're transsexual. Can you honestly say that you haven't yearned to know why?"

"I have an answer that satisfies me," she said. Chosen by the gods.

Kolay and the others lived in a temple. It was a beautiful building with stone arches and huge halls. Centuries old; built to last. The Teesha take their temples very seriously. The priests and priestesses spent their days worshipping Atya, the twelfth of their thirteen gods, the god/dess of things in-between, of luck and fate, and of puzzles. Atya is a hermaphroditic god/dess, and Teesha transsexuals (and occasional alien transsexuals like Galla) often congregate in temples of Atya throughout the Holy Empire.

By day, the priests and priestesses performed enactments for people who came to the temple. One man wanted an enactment to help him in a job interview. An older woman was leaving the star system for the first time, and was looking for reassurance that the gods would protect her.

Here's a trivia point for you: the Teesh word for "transsexual" is chullak. The word for "spiritual leader" is chullak or keeno-gratta chullak. Literally translated, keeno-gratta means "of uncomplicated gender." You see? A spiritual leader can be non-transsexual, but their whole language seems to deny the existence of non-religious transsexuals.

Kolay's job required her to act like a mother figure and, true to her vocation, she took me under her wing. She invited me to stay at the temple indefinitely. I helped out with chores around the temple -- I cooked and swept and replaced countless candles. At night, I used the computers to access more and more of their research and writings about gender and neurobiology.

They really didn't know what to make of the fact that I wasn't remotely religious. Like I said, in the Holy Empire, if you're transsexual you're pretty much assumed to be a priest or priestess. They found me so perplexing that, one day, the priests and priestesses of Atya took me out to a sacred place on a mountaintop outside of the city. "Your spirit is dulled," Kolay said. "We'll have a healing ceremony."

The astro-sponge grew in soft, squishy little pseudopods. Kolay sliced off one of the pods, and drained its liquid into a bowl. The liquid gave off a sweet honeysuckle scent.

We sat in a circle, under the brilliant midday sun. The purpose of the ceremony was to speak pain. We went around the circle, and each of them talked about pain in their lives, and in the lives of others. After each recounting, we'd ceremonially say "Homa-ka," which means: "I honor your pain." It was really schlocky. I knew there was a reason I wasn't into religion.

It was my turn. I said: "Most of Terran culture still does not understand transsexualism. My brothers and sisters who walk this path lose their friends, their families, and their jobs. It is very hard for them. I say this to acknowledge their pain." I was getting good at sounding overly formal.

Kolay frowned at me. "Speak about your pain," she said. "This ceremony is not about good will toward vague other people. This is an enactment to heal the healers."

But I had no pain to acknowledge. When I changed my sex, I avoided many of the hardships that other transsexuals faced. The University's diversity policy protected me. I hadn't really lost any friends. I was still in contact with my family.

All eyes were on me, and I searched my memory for some unhappiness to refer to. I had just been thinking about family, so I sifted through those feelings. I found . . . not pain, but a wistful thought. It was all I could find on a moment's notice.

"I, uh . . . I kind of regret that my brother and I drifted . . ." It's funny: when I started the sentence, I didn't have any strong feelings about my brother. By the time I started to say "drifted apart," my throat closed up. I'd opened a door to an avalanche of memories. How we jumped out of trees when I was seven. How he'd taught me to drive when I turned sixteen. And how he seemed uninterested in my life now. He'd never given any indication of disapproving of my sex change. But he became distant.

Tears streamed down my face as my whole body started to shake. I never finished my sentence. You'd think with all the clinical psych courses I've taken I'd be aware of how easily we repress things. You'd think that I would be more in touch with my feelings.

I folded over, and felt the squishy ground cover on my face, and my body convulsed as I cried into the dark green astro-sponge. I heard the others say, "Homa-ka."

That was the first time I let down my defenses. Conceptually, I know that people are supposed to take opportunities to just get in touch with their feelings. I've taken enough clinical psych to have had that drilled into me. But, you know how it is: there's what you know, and there's what you do.

Kolay and the others were very good at making people find time for their emotions. To take stock of how things are. I wasn't ready to start believing in their thirteen gods, but I could see how their religion played a therapeutic role in their society.

At meals, we'd have deep, philosophical discussions. We'd talk about the nature of souls, notions of individuals and societies, and the function of psychology. At night, I would go to bed feeling spent, but at the same time sated. Like I was exercising all of myself. I became more and more familiar with the language, and was able to express myself more and more clearly, although I still made blunders that I couldn't even understand. Some of their words seemed to carry connotations that I was never able to recognize.

"How goes the research?" Maju asked me one evening.

"It doesn't seem to be getting me anywhere," I replied. "I spent the day trying to find out whether or not there are any Teesh studies on prenatal hormones. I'm coming up empty again and again."

Kolay shifted in her chair a bit. "Prenatal hormones? Why is that important?" she asked.

"We think that prenatal hormones somehow encode gender in the human brain during fetal development. That's the theory, but we don't know precisely how it works. If we had more details, we could possibly design a test for the gender of someone's brain. Heck, we'd be able to detect transsexualism at birth."

Kolay was quiet for a long time. "Your world is very different than ours," Kolay said, finally. Her lips were pursed, as if she had a bad taste in her mouth. "Your experiments are designed to empty transsexualism of its religious nature. Being chullak is a profound experience; it should not be treated like a genetic disorder."

"On Earth, transsexualism isn't considered a religious experience."

"How did you decide that you were transsexual?" Kolay asked.

I was taken aback by her question. "I've just . . . I've always known."

"And that's not a religious experience? That's faith. Belief in the intangible."

"It doesn't need to be intangible. If we can find the gender center of the brain, we can validate the claims of transsexuals. Imagine how liberating that can be."

"The first thing to understand is that you don't understand. Only then can you become strong," she said. It was the sort of irritating fortune-cookie wisdom that she often dispensed.

"That's the kind of answer that only religious people find comfort in."

One day, we traveled to the bazaar to buy food. The bazaar was crowded, and noisy, and smelled of old vegetables and animal pelts. In a way, it was disorienting; it made me feel like I was in some third-world country, even though the Teesh homeworld was considerably more advanced than anywhere on Earth.

And everywhere we went, things quieted down just a little bit; we walked through the bazaar in a cloud of calm murmuring. At one point, a woman approached Kolay and asked her to bless a baby. Kolay smiled, and dabbed some scented oils on the baby's forehead. The woman looked grateful and scurried back into the crowd. A similar scene happened when we stopped at a café to get some lunch. It made me very self-conscious. On Earth, transsexuals strive not to be noticed as transsexuals at all. We call it "passing." The success of a transsexual's gender transition is measured by whether or not he or she can be taken for a normal man or a normal woman.

"Do you ever get tired of the constant attention?" I asked, stretching out on my mat. Teesh cafés have very low tables, and people sit on mats and pillows. After a good meal, the Teesha like to recline on pillows to digest their food.

Kolay nodded. "Even though I'm chullak," she said, "I didn't originally intend to become a full-time priestess. I worked for a moiety that designed electronics. Several times a year, the moiety would congregate to perform special enactments. A new project enactment. A ritual to mark the changing of a group leader. I held a very ordinary job, but I was always sought out to play a key role in the rituals. Eventually, you realize that you can't ignore your calling." She sipped on her drink, thoughtfully.

"But don't you feel . . . I dunno . . . like you want to be treated like a normal woman?"

Kolay frowned: "I am chullak. It is a great honor to be so chosen."

I picked up my drink; it was fragrant with exotic spices. "On Earth, nobody wants to be transsexual. Transsexuals just want to be normal men and women. If anything, we're ashamed to be transsexual; we hide it."

"You must find the thing that you are," Kolay said, "and be that. You can't walk someone else's path."

"But you're always revealing yourselves. Everybody knows. You'll never be treated as a normal woman if you keep reminding people how different you are." Kolay stared at me, a look of total non-comprehension on her face, as if I'd just said the most alien thing in the world.

One of the other priestesses -- Maju -- spoke up. "Sister," she said, "my nature is apparent to everyone." This was true. Maju was large, male-shaped, square-jawed. "How would I pretend to be anything else?"

And if she lived on Earth, Maju would be the type of transsexual who'd be at high risk of suicide. Always ostracized. People like Maju pay the price for upsetting society's belief in the invariance of gender.

I looked back at Kolay. "At the core, we are the same," I said. "We feel the same thing. We are both born into the wrong body, and what we most desire is to correct that as much as possible."

Kolay shook her head: "No. I would never describe myself that way. I am a fusion of male and female. I am twice-born."

"How can you say that? You're not androgynous in the least. Your body is completely female."

"But my life is not. When I speak my story, I do not omit."

I had no response to that. I guess I figured that life was something that happens, whereas the body is something that is.

"Beth," Kolay continued. "I think you need your science because you want some outside, objective force to validate who you are."

Like many transsexuals, I believed that my feelings about my gender were typical of normal women. I felt certain that somewhere -- in my brain, or in my DNA -- my womanhood was inscribed upon my body in the same way as for non-transsexual women. It was just a matter of finding the evidence.

I sat there with my drink. My chest ached with a dull hollowness behind my sternum; even then, I couldn't explain the sadness -- the loneliness -- that had suddenly washed over me.

I had planned to be away from Earth for eight months. Two months out. Four months doing research. Two months back.

When it became apparent that I wasn't going to find much in the way of gender research on the Teesh homeworld, I sent off requests to some of the nearby alien worlds. That was slow, too; the Empire may be technologically advanced, but even they haven't figured out any form of faster-than-light communication, other than sending things by ship. And so, in the days leading up to my departure, I was madly scrambling to transfer data. There were so many obstacles between our societies. Our computer equipment wasn't even close to being compatible.

It was while I was at the height of deadline panic that Kolay came to me.

"Beth," she said, "there is a brother here. He needs advice. I was wondering if you would talk to him."

"I'm really kind of busy here, Kolay," I said. "Can't someone else handle it?"

She thought for a while. "No," she said finally.

Kolay motioned for a young woman -- a teen, really -- to enter. "This is Ithical vora Nortja Lossa, a chullak and a student. Nortja, for short. He is looking for experiences; he wants to know what is ahead of him."

The youth was at the beginning of a gender journey; he was still wearing the body of his birth sex. His chin and his nose had a feminine delicacy to them. It's hard, sometimes, to get the pronouns right when all the visual signals are giving you contrary gender cues.

"Kolay," I pleaded, "I'm not a transman. I'm not Teesha, and I'm not one of the priestesses here. Why me? What can I say?"

"Nortja is not religious." The Teesha definitely had a dominant religion, but it wasn't universal. It was easy to forget that, given the way their society was structured. "He wants to hear about a secular life," Kolay continued.

"Greetings," Nortja said. He stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth, nervously. "Kolay tells me that you're Terran."

"Yes," I said, as I switched my computer to standby and put it in my pocket. Perhaps this was more important after all.

"She tells me that you are a researcher. A fact-finder. That you don't feel spiritual."

"I suppose that's right," I said, and I have to admit that I was aware of some regret as I said it.

And then I understood something: that I was no longer the outsider come into the temple. What Kolay had helped me to see, I had to explain to Nortja.

I figured that it shouldn't be hard; I worked in a university and had learned to clearly and succinctly express a set of conclusions.

I looked across the room, to where Kolay was standing, watching us. And I realized that a packaged list of conclusions wasn't what Nortja needed.

The water crashed and filled the air with wet spray. I turned the piece of glass over in my hands, and Kolay's words hung in the air: "When does it stop being glass, and when does it become sand?"

"I don't know," I said. I dropped the piece of glass back into the water and it disappeared into the riverbed.

Kolay smiled. "The first thing to understand is that you don't understand. Only then can you become strong."

Galla squealed as she went by, riding the rapids. The water propelled her clumsily into the rocks, but she didn't really seem to mind. Kolay laughed, and I laughed too. Maju was still upstream. "Beth," she yelled, "you must try this."

The sun shone down, and the river roared. I stripped off the last of my clothes and ran toward her.


Copyright © 2003 B. C. Holmes

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B. C. lives and writes in Toronto. Her writing has appeared in Aboriginal Science Fiction, Challenge Magazine, and a number of smaller-circulation publications. For more about her and her work, see her website. To contact her, send her email at