Other, Like the Sun to the Planets

This story was originally published in Vulture Bones, issue 6. Unfortunately, the Vulture Bones website is offline, so I’ve posted the story here.

Of all the things that Robin had expected to miss when xe left home, xe hadn’t thought about how much xe would miss the sun. Mistgate was lively, diverse, and modern, but the megastructure over the surrounding region left Sol feeling cold and distant.

Now back in Argyre for the first time in years, Robin relished the warm caress of sunlight as xe dangled xyr legs over the edge of Gallow Lake, toes skimming the placid blue surface. The rays filtered through the golden leaves of the surrounding forest, the air still balmy in the slow onset of autumn. Xe wasn’t quite alone, but it was close enough for xyr comfort. The laughter of children running along the narrow gravel beach echoed through the clearing, and couples came in and out of the woods to walk along the water for a distance. The forest was a kilometer deep at its thinnest, less than ten at its thickest—a flora halo around Gallow Lake before forest gave way to homesteads, motor roads, and parklets that were to the forest what a ghost was to a living person: more sad than substantial.

When Robin had grown up here, xe had often escaped to the lake to read for long hours. Xe would bring real books from the library when xe could sneak one out, or download something onto xyr scroll if xe couldn’t. Xe hadn’t thought about it at the time, but sitting here now, Robin wondered if either of xyr parents had come to the lake when they’d been young. How many generations back had xyr kin lazily soaked in the sun on the banks of Gallow Lake, breathing the pine-fresh air, skimming their toes over the balmy water? How many had looked at Sol with a sense of wonder, knowing they were millions of kilometers from their primordial human home, yet still given life by the same sun?

Robin remembered people telling xym back then that Argyre was so heavily terraformed that a visiting Earthborn couldn’t tell that they were on Mars. Robin had never known someone who was Earthborn, but xe was pretty sure they’d notice the ochre tinge of the dust, even if the sandstone and basalt could’ve been born from Earth as easily as Mars. Then again, maybe they wouldn’t fixate on that out-of-place detail. Someone could rationalize it as one of the many colors of dirt from their home, just not the one they expected. Maybe they’d be too desperate for home to worry about what had changed.

Robin could relate to that desperation, torn as xe was about xyr own visit. It had been three years—Martian ones, too—since xe had been here last. Xe had hoped things would be different now. They were, but not different enough.

The sharp golden edges of Tay-Behn’s skyscrapers sparkled in the sinking sun, a familiar skyline beyond the woods and the vast suburbs. Between the boxy behemoth of the Deep Industries and the spiraling facade of Miekki Six, Robin’s eye caught the gleam of a sharp bronze peak. The tip of Old Mars Tay’s spear. The image of Old Mars, antiquated in Mistgate as in most places on the planet, was still held high by the dozens of giant Old Mars statues of Argyre.

The stirring resentment that Robin felt when xe looked at Old Mars was somewhere between petty and justified. Right now, it was closer to justified, xe felt, as xe reluctantly reached for xyr boots. If xyr parents weren’t quite so taken with Old Mars, they might not be quite so stubborn in refusing to acknowledge who Robin was.

* * *

When Robin was very young, xe was fascinated by the Celestials. Only children can love the gods so plainly, before grasping of all their cruelties and unkept promises. But at the tender age of seven, Robin was still bursting with hope. Ma was a good Argyrian mother, who humored xyr curiosity by answering xyr questions, tolerating xyr naive but good-spirited interjections, and answering xyr ceaseless pleas for stories.

Robin loved the creation story the most, though at the time xe couldn’t have told you why. Or maybe xe could have, and just wasn’t listened to. Xe rarely trusted xyr memory on such things, fossilized deep by the relentless pressures of growing up. But the story itself remained unchanged every time Ma told it.

“Once upon a time,” Ma began, “the Celestials created themselves out of the hot chaos-stuff of another star’s death. Sol, our sun, the largest and greatest, took the center of the Solar System, and all the planets gladly found their paths around Sol, and the moons found their paths around their planets. For eons they lived in harmony. But something was missing.

“Venus cried out that she was alone, but she was too hot and tempestuous to be something more. Mars knew he too was alone, but he was too cold and stoic to be something more. Only Earth, with zir balance of male and female energy, between the pull of Venus and Mars, could scream so loudly that ze bellowed life into existence.

“Life was sparked, and then life flourished. Cells grew and evolved and changed, becoming ever more complex, forming new life made up of millions of smaller lifeforms. Coaxed by the barren Luna, creatures rose from the primordial seas to eventually cover Earth’s entire surface.

“Eons later, life grew strong enough to break the pull of Earth’s gravity, and wise enough to listen to the songs of the other Celestials. Never leaving the orbit of Sol, humanity spread out across the solar system’s planets, first to the welcome of dear Old Mars, then honey-sweet Venus, then little Luna, and then out to the rest of the worlds.”

“But ma,” Robin asked one time, “what about Sol? Venus is like a woman and Mars is like a man, Earth is both and Luna’s neither. So what’s Sol?”

“Neither” and “both” were concepts xe could grasp. Xe had not yet grasped “other.”

“Sol is beyond male and female,” said Ma. “Xe is something so much more, something much
too big for our little human brains.”

“But I want to know!”

Robin didn’t think then that it was too big for xyr brain, had been insulted by the suggestion. And now with the bittersweet hindsight of adulthood, Robin knew that xe had been right, that xyr mother had been wrong, and that it made no difference to those who sang the myths of Old Mars anyway.

Those songs resonate deep, tuning the bones as people grow, warping them into a shape that fits what they have grown up to believe is the sound of truth. It is not the truth, any more or less than the billions of other conflicting truths, of other lands and times.

“Mars is male, like a man, and Venus is female, like a woman,” said Ma. She grew up to the harmonies of Old Mars, and was doing her best to raise a child who believed them as much as she did. “Sol is divine, like a god.”

“But all the Celestials are gods,” Robin protested.

“They are. But Sol outshines them all.”

* * *

Robin grew up in the house on Deer Hill, as had xyr father, and his father before him. Xyr paternal great-grandfather built it back when there were still deer on the hill, before it was just another wild patch enveloped by suburbs in yet another New Argyrian Land Use Deal. The tall wooden fences held vines and lichens now, more rot visible than paint, once the barrier of a childhood fairy kingdom and now a sad reminder of the transience of human construction.

The kitchen hadn’t lost its charm in quite the same way. Nestled in the center of the house, it was always warm from the ovens filled with bread and roast. As Robin lingered at the long, cherished table, almost as old as the house itself, xe found comfort in the good memories it held. The cat that stalked technicolor toy mice at xyr feet was the child of the cat that Robin grew up with, now an adult creature with the same bushy tail as its mother.

It was here in the kitchen that Robin had finally confronted xyr mother with the question that had been bothering xym since xyr arrival two days ago. Pops had already left for his job at the recycling plant and Robin’s younger siblings were out byking, leaving Robin and xyr mother alone to enjoy their second breakfast.

“Why won’t you use my pronouns?” Robin asked. “Before I agreed to this trip, you said that you understood. That you still loved me.”

“Robin, of course I love you,” Ma said, her face creased with the thousand worries of a mother, worries that transcended any single moment, that only seemed to form fissures with age. She was hurt by the question, Robin could tell; perhaps throwing in the “still loved me” was too much. “I love you, and nothing will ever change that. But you know your father is more traditional about these things, and I don’t want to upset him.”

“I know he’s traditional, but this is just as real as any of the four genders he does acknowledge.” Unspoken was the shared knowledge that he still used an out-of-favor slur to refer to the neutrois, that he tolerated bigender folks but conspicuously lacked any in his crew of drinking buddies. “Sounds almost the same as ze, even; it’s not like I picked something off-world he’s never heard of before.”

As soon as the words were out of xyr mouth, Robin regretted them. Xe shouldn’t have to play to respectability, to acquiesce to the narrow view that the four common genders in Argyre were somehow more legitimate. Those other off-world genders and pronouns had been like a break in the storm clouds when xe had discovered them, a validation that something xe’d been told was only for the divine was not so incomprehensible, not so beyond humanity, after all.

“It’s just not what he’s used to,” Ma said. Her tone was placating, but it only made Robin angry. Ma tried so hard to keep the peace, and xe was old enough now to know how much effort went into that, but xe was tired of that peace coming at xyr expense.

“So, since I’m used to being misgendered, my comfort’s already forfeit?” xe snapped. “So, his comfort can be unshakeable? Got it, Ma.”

“Robin, it’s not like that,” she protested, but Robin was already crossing to the basement door, keys in hand.

“I’m going to the lake,” said Robin, ignoring the well-meaning lies. And xe left.

* * *

Robin left the woods on foot, taking xyr time on the twilit path as the looming dusk drained the color from the trees. Xyr powerbyke was right where xe’d left it, chained to a rusting rack in the empty parking lot.

The drive to xyr parents’ house was less than fifteen minutes. Part of Robin’s mind screamed, anywhere but there, but xe knew from experience that avoidance would bring xym no peace. Pops’ auto was in the garage when xe pulled xyr powerbyke into the empty space next to xyr siblings’ bykes. A boxy bronze thing, the auto gleamed just as much as it had when Pops had first brought it home after his big promotion, not long before Robin left. Xe had sourly thought more than once during xyr last months here that he was more proud of it than he was of his children. In the years since, Robin remembered he’d never kissed it, like he had xyr skinned knees the time xe first flew off xyr manubyke, and he’d only bought it after he’d set aside money for all three of his children’s graduate deposits.

Robin climbed the stairs to find Pops already in the kitchen, reading the evening news. He looked up when Robin entered the kitchen, nodded without changing his stoic expression, and looked back to his scroll. Yelena was setting out the flatware while Ma fussed over the dishes as she pulled them out from the PrepMatic. Joss slunk in the kitchen and draped his lanky teenage form over the nearest chair.

“Need any help?” Robin asked as xe leaned against one of the counters beside the PrepMatic, watching Yelena place glasses on the table.

“Oh, yes, thank you, Robin,” Ma said. She looked up from the cream casserole, something between gratitude and regret shining in her eyes. Robin felt a tiny pang of conscience—no doubt she’d worried that xe wouldn’t be back for dinner, one less family meal for the short week xe was back in the region—but xe felt worse that xe’d had to pick between keeping the peace and asking for respect. “Would you get the pickles from the fridge, please?”

“Yelena, have you asked Robin about jobs in Mistgate yet?” continued Ma as she reached for the pan of vegetables.

“Not yet, Ma,” Yelena said, rolling her eyes as she glanced at Robin, with an I’m getting to it look that Robin knew well from xyr own teenage years.

“You ought to before xe leaves,” Ma continued. No one else seemed to notice, but Robin was immediately alert upon hearing the right pronoun. Or had it been ‘ze’ that she’d said? “Xe was telling me there’s always a big rush of applications before High Season, and if you ask xym I bet xe has some good connections who can put in a word for you.”

Now, everyone noticed. Yelena smiled, despite the mild admonishment, as she promised that she’d talk to Robin after dinner. Pops looked up, frowning, but as his gaze swept from Ma to Robin and back, xe saw it was nothing more than bemusement. Finally, he shrugged and returned to reading.

No one commented on the change of pronoun throughout dinner, but Yelena and Joss effortlessly followed Ma’s lead. Pops avoided using a pronoun altogether, which was both frustrating and yet validating in its own way. The sudden freedom from xyr old pronoun, back here in xyr childhood home, left Robin feeling caught off guard. Not in a bad way, more like how xe had felt when a friend threw xym a surprise party. It didn’t fully eclipse the legacy of resentment of how xyr parents had handled xyr gender for so long, but Robin let xymself enjoy the moment anyway.

When supper ended, Pops and Joss went down to the den to watch wrestling.

“Just come get me when you’re ready to talk,” Yelena called to Robin as she headed up to her room. “I’ve gotta text a friend before I forget.”

Robin helped clear the table in silence. Once all the dishes were collected, Ma thanked Robin for helping, and paused to touch xyr shoulder when xe made to go upstairs to fetch Yelena.

“I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you sooner,” Ma said.

“It’s okay,” said Robin.

It wasn’t entirely okay, but it was okay enough for now, and the hug xe gave xyr mom was true