Fiction: What Makes Us Human, Part Two

Cartoon-style illustration of shrubs, roses and grasses growing against a grey stone wall. Scene is overlaid with the dark green/light green/white/grey/black stripes of the aro pride flag. The text Marchverse sits across the image in a white, fantasy-style type.

Moll of Sirenne needs prompts in their girdle book to navigate casual conversations, struggles to master facial expressions and feels safest weeding the monastery’s vegetable gardens. Following their call to service, however, means offering wanderers in need a priest’s support and guidance. A life free of social expectation to court, wed and befriend does outweigh their fear of causing harm—until forgetting the date of a holiday provokes a guest’s ire and three cutting words: lifeless and loveless.

A priest must expand a guest’s sense of human worth, but what do they do when their own comes under question? Can an autistic, aromantic priest ever expect to serve outside the garden? And what day is it…?

Will you ignore their need of someone their own to reassure them that they are so wonderfully and deservedly human?

Contains: A middle-aged, agender priest set on defying social norms around love; an alloromantic guest with a journey to undergo in conquering her amatonormativity and ableism; and an elderly aromantic priest providing irascible reassurance.

Setting: Marchverse. This story obliquely nods at events referenced in Love is the Reckoning and Those With More, but it can be read entirely on its own. No prior knowledge of my other stories is needed.

Content Advisory: Depictions and discussions of ableism, amatonormativity and dehumanisation, particularly with regards to autism and aromanticism. Please expect additional background references to partner abuse and dysfunctional relationships, along with a side mention of magic causing harm to animals. This piece also includes reflections on non-romantic love’s being pushed as a second-best “humanising” quality on non-partnering, aplatonic and neurodiverse aros.

Length: 3, 116 words (part two of two).

Moll checks that she follows and, wordlessly, heads towards the guest common room. Their heart thrums in their chest; they fight to slow their heaving ribs. What will they do if Gennifer isn’t finished with what caused her to miss breakfast? What if … shades, can’t they send an acolyte to find her or Oki? Waiting with James won’t lack unpleasantness, but Moll needn’t engage her in conversation. They can keep their silence while a brown-robe hunts down a senior priest.

Breathe.

For good or ill, they are both decided to follow a new path.

Gennifer, fortunately, sits in one of several armchairs, frowning down at the ledger in her lap. Two acolytes tidying feel more like shadows than occupants in a vast room of redwood tables and bookshelves, all crammed with books, games, paper, pencils and paints. Pots filled with trailing ferns hang from the high rafters, lending the room a touch of Sirenne’s soil-and-leaflitter scent; the large slate tiles, polished smooth and set close together, feel cool under Moll’s bare feet. Large windows reveal the gardens between wings, permitting light enough that demarcations of “outside” and “inside” lose relevance.

She closes the book and looks up, her thick brows raised. Moll has long learnt better than to voice these observations, but Gennifer resembles her pet chicken—a round, fat woman with nut-brown skin and hair, the latter trimmed to a fine fuzz covering her scalp and neck. The red robes, belted with an advising priest’s green sash, pick up the reddish tinge in the hen’s feathers; the neat way she tucks her arms at her sides, her hands drawn up by her chest, resembles the hen’s wings. No quality will so provoke this comparison if not for Gennifer’s mothering of anyone, guest or priest, she judges in need.

“May we converse in private?” Moll asks, turning their head to ensure that James follows them into the room. “Thank you.”

She stands a few paces off, tucking her hand—the tip of one finger smeared with her lip paint—behind her back.

The acolytes down their books and retreat to the hallway.

“What is it?” Gennifer waves at the chair opposite her table. “Sit down. Can I get you a cup of tea? A biscuit?”

“No. James has the opinion … that I can’t relate to their experiences. She wishes the guidance of another priest.” Only a lifetime of practice allows Moll to keep their voice flat and calm. “I don’t wish to cause her any further distress, so I ask that you assign her to someone of a more … suitable nature.”

Only the slightest shift of brow mars Gennifer’s quiet smile. “I see. Is this the case, James?”

How can Gennifer, as careful and controlled as most of Sirenne’s priests, so evade accusations of lifelessness? What difference exists between her expression and theirs? Why can’t Moll see, recognise and imitate it?

James hesitates for long enough that Moll wonders if she’s beset by a change of heart, but at length she nods and takes the offered chair. “Yes. Please. They don’t even know what day it is! They just ask pointless question after question, all stiff and wooden. How am I supposed to get anywhere with a priest that remembers nothing normal?”

She doesn’t mention, Moll thinks with a nauseating bitterness, that she accused all priests of such ignorance. They may not know what the date means, how better to have approached James’s guiding or why only Gennifer’s questions are worth answering, but they know one thing: their control teeters on collapse’s edge.

They bow, turn and stride to the doorway.

“It’s difficult,” Gennifer says with a non-committal softness, “to feel as though—”

Moll quickens their step, their red robes flapping about their calves. Another pair of acolytes enter the hallway, stop and abruptly reverse direction as though afraid to tangle with a priest in a temper. They fist their hands until their fingers ache, but their shoulders shake and their chest heaves. Why did they entertain the delusion that their thick, autistic body, with its oversized hands and stern face, can ever be anything but threatening?

How much more damage need they cause before accepting the truth?

The feel of grass beneath their soles and the strengthening of the rich damp-earth smell tells Moll that they’ve left the building for one of the gardens. Rows of mulched corn, peas and beans grow in a sunny section of the monastery, angled away from the greenhouse. The gardens weren’t their intention, at least insofar that they possessed any, but a riot of unwanted seedlings sprout from the pea straw’s seeds, diverting water and nutrients from the vegetables. The acolytes are a few days behind in their weeding. Good enough.

Moll—ignored by the priest and guests tending the greenhouse’s tomatoes—grabs a bucket and a trowel, kneels by the first pea-festooned trellis and starts pulling up weeds.

There’s no glamour in weeding, no proud presentation of the literal fruits of one’s labour. New weeds poke through the soil and mulch almost as soon as one finishes, and, as in laundry and dishwashing, Moll never finds the satisfaction of conclusion. A garden always provides distraction, however, and nobody stopped to marvel at a quartermaster’s labour. Why expect it now?

Peace, instead, lies in the feel of damp earth clinging to bare feet, the patter of water falling on green leaves, the smell of sun warming soil and straw, the pop as a root pulls free from its earthen cradle. Moll’s trembling fingers fight to gently prise weeds from the bed and shake soil from their roots, but they put their rage into their shoulder as they hurl each into the bucket left at the end of the row.

Pull, shake, throw.

Pop, patter, thwack.

Isn’t this suitable work? If their labour allows Gennifer to guide James by providing the food eaten by priests, acolytes and guests, how aren’t they following their calling?

Pop, patter, smack.

“Do all of those require pulling?”

They jerk, straighten and turn, started to find the Guide sitting in her wheelchair only an arm’s length distant, her attendant idling with a book at the other end of the row. She’s a small woman with white hair gone yellow, sunken cheeks and bony limbs; “elderly” suggests more youth than she shows. Her green robe, belted with red, catches the light through some trickery of weave; a darker green blanket, knit from witched wool, sits over her lap, although the summer warmth permits her to bare both marked shoulders. A ball of yarn, two knitting needles and a toe and heel in progress rests in the valley between her knees. Based on Moll’s infrequent glimpses of her work about the monastery, she too prefers her hands busy, perhaps despite her swollen knuckles.

She looks like a stiff breeze will blow her out of her chair, but she reminds Moll of a century-dead tree, its roots grown so deep that its trunk and limbs survive drought and cyclone.

They drop their plant and, suddenly aware of their aching shoulders and back, bow to Sirenne’s most senior priest.

“Oh, stop. Sit up and stay sit up. Sat up? Whatever.” The Guide sighs and peers down at Moll. “Aren’t your back and knees breaking? I’m hurting just looking at you.”

Moll realises then that they’ve worked down the row and halfway across the bed. Small bits of seed and gravel dig into their knees through the thin linen of their summer robe; their legs, beset with an unnatural stiffness, fight their attempts to sit. “I’m sorry, sir, for my unsupp—”

The Guide raises both hands and claps her fingers to her thumb in the gesture meant to indicate a bird’s opening beak—usually made to mock a person prone to gossip. If she owns something as ordinary as a shroudname, Moll has never heard it mentioned. She’s just the Guide, the leader of her flock on their journey to … well, the Sojourner isn’t the sort of god that provides clarity. No bright heaven or dark hell; just the bewildering grey of somewhere.

Moll dislikes those vague, unspecific words.

“I’m sorry for abandon—”

She repeats the gesture several times, fingertip smacking against thumb.

“I’m … sorry?”

Moll has heard the monastery’s gossip about the Guide, but they didn’t expect … well, this.

“Stop it with the drivel.” The Guide sighs and shakes her head. “If you apologise again, I’ll send you to shadow with the calling-year acolytes. Don’t think I won’t!”

Just the thought of taking lessons with Ro and Alicia has Moll closing their mouth with a teeth-clacking snap. Moll’s calling-year included a grandparent twice their age, but Ro’s year leans young, and they can’t say that they’ll enjoy being so subjected to the acolytes’ discussions, explosions, giggles, jibes and pranks. Moll endured enough of that in the army, irritated even when they were of the customary age to partake!

Is this the Guide’s way of saying that Moll needs those lessons?

Are their missteps with James so serious that Gennifer went to the Guide?

“Moll?”

They sit up, rolling their shoulders back in a vain attempt to ease their stiffness. “I don’t think I need those lessons refreshed,” they say, hoping that their tone doesn’t convey their stomach’s nervous roiling. A priest shouldn’t be afraid to admit fault. How can one help guide another in open-hearted curiosity while bound to an unfailing sense of correctness? “I think I’ll do better in the gardens or the stables. Wherever you believe my work most needed.”

Not that Moll has done an exemplary job with the garden, given the halo of uprooted-and-thrown plants surrounding the bucket.

“Really?” The Guide sighs, looking down at Moll with raised eyebrows. “Because I came here to tell a guiding priest to pick the gravel from their knees, wash up and hop to the infirmary to be briefed on a guest’s needs from his new priest.”

Moll frowns. The infirmary? A guest’s new priest? “Another guest—”

“No! You want to specialise in the arts of weed pulling and shit shovelling! Far be it from me to stop a priest from following their road—even if that road takes them five clicks backwards.” The Guide shrugs and nestles her hands in her lap. “I’m sure there’s another priest with curiosity, patience and directness to help guide a guest as much harmed by Sirenne as the world—another priest that finds equal confusion in tedious definitions of normality. Gennifer’s unexpectedly busy—what about Oki?”

They stiffen, their eyes resting on the thick, bobbled stockings covering the Guide’s unshod feet. “I don’t understand,” Moll murmurs, beset with too many curiosities to untangle but certain that few priests have referenced Sirenne’s harming a guest. “If I knew what you’re referencing, perhaps I could say…? But … I don’t want to distress another guest, and someone must muck the stables.”

After all, she may as well be referencing Moll’s treatment of James.

The Guide stares at Moll, her brow furrowed, her expression well beyond their conjecture. “I think,” she says at length, “you should explain the source of your newfound enthusiasm for regression.”

By now, narrating a discussion with a guest to a senior priest feels habitual. Moll exhales, hissing their breath over their teeth, before beginning with the dining hall, backtracking to explain their anxiety and James’s prior behaviours, and continuing with the courtyard conversations.

Their voice, steady during all manner of absurd, eldritch and horrifying goings-on in their fifteen years with Seventh, wobbles on the words “loveless” and “lifeless”.

“…so I did the inappropriate thing of leaving without allowing for proper explanation or facilitation of—”

“Nep, nep, nep.” The Guide beaks her fingers thrice; Moll, startled, falls silent. “Drivel. You cluck worse than Gennifer’s chicken. That you can work on—tell Gennifer or your calling-year priests that you want them to help you learn to stop clucking.” She sighs and shakes her head. “You assumed yourself the cause of her mood. James felt distressed by spending Lovers’ Day separated from her partner and took offense to your thinking you’d caused offense. She wanted you to simply offer sympathy, believing her situation abundantly self-evident and unneedful of explanation.”

How many times, over the course of a life, have allistics and alloromantics driven them to aghast speechlessness at their absence of rationality? Lovers’ Day is but a petty holiday borrowed from Astreuch tradition, something about which the Sojourner says nothing. Moll doesn’t care enough to recollect its existence, but neither will they disparage or dismiss her pain—if only she mentioned the holiday when asked!

Sirenne should offer sanctuary, but they’re still caught up in the mess caused by love’s assumption, expectation and conformity.

Even here, they’re still rendered less than human.

“I … asked why…” Moll shakes their head, turns and pulls up another weed. “I don’t understand that. None of it. So I belong out here.”

“I didn’t say it was reasonable. It isn’t any more reasonable than your current occupational decision.” The Guide barks a laugh. “But since when do we expect guests to bring reason with them? They don’t. We help them find it.”

They don’t know what word names the mood that has Moll wrench, twist and fling a seeding somewhere towards the bucket before looking up at the Guide. “How could I have—”

“You should have,” the Guide says, her words soft, “taken her to Gennifer as soon as her judgement turned personal. You didn’t need to tolerate that half as long as you did. Take her to someone who gives her fewer excuses and isn’t bearing bruises the world never lets heal. No garden so needs weeding that you should be breaking your body, afterwards, to survive the punches you thought you had to let her throw.”

They sit up, bunching their robes over their legs. Her words ring of bewildering improbability, an unexpected response—like the giving of their girdle book, the leather cover now speckled with dirt and mulch—wildly contradictory to the world’s usual rules and processes. Ideal, certainly, but not in practice true.

“I’m meant,” Moll says slowly, “to be able to do my work. I can’t give every allistic or alloromantic guest to Gennifer because they don’t make se—”

“We both know you won’t ask that another priest take on a guest’s care because you don’t understand their reasoning, but you should if they don’t respect your humanity!” The Guide waves her hand towards the great hall. “How, if you break yourself dealing with every guest assigned to you, are you going to give your best service to the next agender, aromantic or autistic guest walking up our driveway? What if there’s someone there in need of you? Can you, right now, serve as they need?”

They freeze, open-mouthed.

Never did Moll think to look at their work from that angle.

“There wouldn’t be that many—”

Drivel. Most of the priests not us can handle James. Gennifer, though, isn’t aromantic. She’s kind, sweet and open-minded, certainly—and that’s better than nothing. But she doesn’t speak from a place of knowing. We do. And now, you can give someone something neither of us had—a guiding priest who knows in the heart. Can’t you imagine what that must feel like?” She sighs, her crow’s voice cracking. “Some guests won’t be suited to your strengths, but they’ll respect your humanity. Some won’t suit you, and you’ll make sure they’re cared for by someone they’re less likely to harm. And others, yet unknowing, need you. Will you, Moll, ignore their need of someone their own to reassure them that they are so wonderfully and deservedly human—no matter what the world says?”

Moll draws a breath, the hairs on their forearms raised, their body alert and quivering. Despite the near-cloudless sky, they look up, searching for lightning; the air crackles with that wild, dangerous energy. They hoped, five years ago, to return this gift Gennifer offered to a discharged quartermaster stripped of home and place. The gift of reframing the world, tossing about all long-held expectations so one can put aside the misunderstandings and follow a new turning. The gift, a chance to see everything anew, they couldn’t offer James.

A gift, perhaps, they can still offer someone else—because she’s right, something Moll didn’t realise until she said the word “us”.

They didn’t know that they’d waited forty-four years to receive that gift from their own—to be affirmed human by their kin’s reckoning.

The garden shouldn’t be the entirety of their service.

“That’s better.” The Guide gives a small, satisfied nod. “You’ve forgotten, I think, that in your first year, we learn how best you work with guests. Knowing that better, now, I need you in the infirmary to work with a guest who also didn’t pair well with his first priest—a guest who needs you, not Oki. Or will you mumble about weeds and manure?”

Moll shakes their head. No, not on their life or name!

“Good. Get up, have a long bath, scrub your fingernails, eat a late lunch and then present yourself to Thanh. Tell hir that I sent you to be Esher’s new guiding priest and ze must explain to you the magic. I doubt he’ll be any kind of conscious today, so you have time to dawdle.”

What happened last night? “Magic? Conscious?”

“Thanh will tell you. Go. I’ve got too many priests yet to talk to.”

Far too curious to surrender to bewilderment, Moll bows their head, grabs their trowel and scrambles upright just as the Guide waves her hand to her attendant. “Thank you. Sir. Thank you.” They turn for their bucket, freeze and spin back to face the Guide. “Sir, can I ask something?”

“Yes, quickly, but it had better not be clucking.”

They don’t know what she means by “clucking”, but they’ll ask Gennifer and Oki. “If you weren’t guiding guests when I came, why…?”

“Why didn’t I guide you, you mean?” The Guide shrugs. “I don’t guide guests or teach the acolytes. I’m perceptive and intelligent, they told me, but disastrously blunt. Now, after years in the kitchens, I guide the priests—once you’re educated enough in yourself that I needn’t dance around my words.” She hesitates. “I think, perhaps, there’s some acolytes I should have taught. But I do know the worth and the necessity in ensuring my own number in the priests that follow me.”

“I think you guide well,” Moll says quietly. “For me, if nobody else.”

Their own expressions aren’t given to smiling, but the Guide’s broadening lips, perhaps, speak for them both.

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