Women in our house and in our settlements have many roles: all are mothers and child-minders, of course, but rarely exclusively. There are far too many jobs that need doing for child-bearing to be one's only responsibility. Everyone helps with the housework; even a rare boy-child is required to clean and run errands, at least until he is old enough to understand the uniqueness of his gender.
Most women have a more skilled and specialist role: work in the fields or the gardens or the smithy, cooking or carpentry or cloth-making; the care of animals or fruit-trees or bees. Most necessities for life are produced within our commune: the loose group of a dozen houses scattered along the valley, with all their associated outbuildings, barns and stables. A few items - mostly luxuries: silks and spices and exotic wines - are traded with other settlements, some within a few days travel by horse-drawn cart or by boat on the river. Others had come from much further afield, the goods traded from merchant to merchant along the way.
But it is not all drudgery: all work and no play makes Jill a dull girl. All of my sisters work on crafts of some kind - some homely and practical, others more exotic and most engage in the arts - painting or music or theatre, or at least appreciate the efforts of others.
My specialist work is that of librarian: the library is available by all, but actually located in an annex of our own house, one which is shared with the children's school. For a middling-sized community, we have a surprisingly large and diverse collection - nearly a thousand books - and we get frequent visitors from other communes in the area as well as a few travelers from faraway places.
Of course, our little library has copies of the standard histories - laboriously copied out by hand - although I knew the contents of these books almost by heart. But there are a few gems amongst the volumes, treasures which may be unique to the hoard which is in my charge. Although all are hand-written - copies of originals long since decayed - the strangest of the works are written in an archaic language, one which is superficially similar to our own in some ways although both spelling and grammar seem resolutely irregular and quite unnecessarily convoluted.
The meaning of these texts is difficult to decipher: not just the language structure itself but there are so many words whose meaning I can only guess at, and so many references to topics undoubtedly familiar to the original readers but unattainable to me. I have spent many long years in study of these texts, working with my sister librarians, tussling with meaning, with wresting an understanding from the page. We have made slow progress, but some semblance of meaning has been gleaned, often as a result of flashes of inspiration. And it was just such a flash that struck me on the balcony last night, prompted by Kathryn's catty remarks.
I entered the quiet library with the morning sunlight streaming through the window. I sought out the volume that memory had suggested, carried it carefully to my work table and gingerly opened it at the chapter I had recalled. As I smoothed the pages and studied the convoluted paragraphs in front of me, the true importance of the revelation I had glimpsed became clear to me.
I already knew that this world was not the original home of our species. The standard histories make it clear that we came to this planet from another, crossing the gulfs between the stars by means I cannot imagine. Why, and even when, our forebears traveled here is now forever lost in the mists of time.
Our forebears had other secrets, too. From my re-reading of the rare texts, I could now understand that our society is quite different from that of our ancestors on that distant world. To my astonishment, I saw that, originally, the permanent state of the human female was to be sexually active and capable of indulging in, and enjoying, sex every day. The position of men, too, seemed to be quite different. They took on all kinds of roles: women's work on the land and in the workshops, in the gardens and the kitchens; in short, everything a woman can do with the obvious exception of actually giving birth. And there were so many of them: nearly as many men - surely not! - as women. A man for every woman, to hold for herself. Fancy that!
Everyday sex for all - men as well as women - was thought to be a binding force, a kind of societal glue. But it is a very wasteful one, with half the population not able to give birth to new life. So, faced with the pressures of populating a new world, the ancients modified our bodies, and our society, giving women short fertile periods linked to the phase of the moon - albeit one which tends to drift slightly and clash with the rhythm of others.
Men, too, were modified to their current form - well, as far as I can judge, having only ever met three of them. Our males are impressive physical specimens: half as tall again as I am - I am I tall for a woman - and easily twice my mass. They are so strong, powerfully muscled from the exercise necessary to maintain their peak physical condition: running and lifting weights during the day, as well as more intimate athletic activities during the night.
Finally, I found the passage that had burned in my mind since last night: perhaps there was a way of having a man all to oneself.