After a night of revelations to her dead aunt Rosie and her living brother Esher, Mara Hill must dare another with Benjamin Lisbet. If she’s truly the woman Mara hopes, surely Benjamin will be receptive to a conversation of the “I love you and want to be with you, just not romantically” sort? Surely this afternoon won’t stray beyond Mara’s preparations of a picnic basket, chives, rehearsed speeches and less-rumpled clothing?
Yet her months of searching for magic to refresh her fading love means there’s too much she doesn’t know about Benjamin. Too much Mara needs to know to hold this conversation without losing Benjamin’s friendship.
Mara thought speaking of her fading love under cover of dark difficult enough … but speaking of romance in daylight is another challenge entirely.
Does the world understand what upon it sets so great a value?
Contains: A sapphic, lithromantic trans witch making a misstep in the quest to build a love that honours her nature; an autistic, idemromantic schoolmarm with coeliac revealing her struggles in building romantic relationships with allistic women; and a conversation concluding in utterances of the word “when”.
Content Advisory: This story contains non-explicit references to sex and sex acts by two allosexual aromantic-spectrum women. These references are more integral to the story and their relationship than in my other pieces, in that I’m not relying on mentions of sex as something these characters have or desire to convey their allosexuality.
It should be noted that this piece contains discussions about romance, romantic relationships and sexual relationships, along with the ways these intersect with autistic-targeted ableism and reflections on ways to navigate sexual non-romantic relationships. I don’t recommend this story for people who experience severe sexual and/or romantic repulsion.
Length: 3, 918 words (part two of two).
Mara sits on a patch of blanket-weed behind the adjoining headstone: close enough to lean over and rest a hand on Benjamin’s shoulder, far enough to leave space between them. Those wracking tears feel like a slap to the face, but Mara dealt the blows. How can she help Benjamin comprehend? Aunt Rosie and Esher grasped Mara’s meaning through their own inability to perform the interests expected of them; Benjamin, not possessing that commonality of experience, sees this as another dismissal.
Having spent today worrying about Benjamin’s rejection, shouldn’t Mara laugh at the irony?
What does she do?
Ask her how she feels if you regard her as a best friend, sharing hanky, panky and books, Rosie said … advice that may have worked should Mara have followed it!
How must Benjamin feel? How much pain does she bear being someone too many women appreciate for bedding over courting or love, “friend” code for “bedding without involvement”? Mara may have appreciated such a relationship, had she known enough about herself to accept her nature, but the reasoning would have—should have!—wounded her.
It isn’t too difficult to imagine: perhaps a woman felt herself enticed by a gorgeous, flirtatious soul in possession of a wonderful bosom and no awkwardness about sex—but couldn’t bear a lifetime spent with a partner who voices anything that crosses her mind, can’t moderate her voice and will never comprehend, never mind master, subtlety. Not something people who ascribe to narrow social customs find easy to explain; even those who consider Pa and Da difficult never say so directly. Everyone knows Theo Dray sends anyone to the smithy in her stead, but she still conjures a string of kitchen-related disasters to excuse summoning her son from the sheep to carry out a five-minute errand.
What does it feel like to be reduced to a diversion—one coloured with false trappings of love and friendship?
The difference between that and Mara’s wanted relationship, she supposes, lies in her setting out expectations and needs from the beginning—in openness, negotiation and not telling a woman she’s loved as a sop to allow casual bedding during the search for a more agreeable partner. No manipulative promises of friendship or gifts of flowers used to seduce an autistic woman into accepting her own objectification!
In that, too, Mara hasn’t succeeded.
That’s why knowing matters, she thinks, twisting her skirts in her hand, entangled within her own angry helplessness. That’s why the dead’s witness matters, why Esher’s sense of attraction as baffling matters, why these conversations about the many shapes of love and want must leave night’s safety for day’s cruelty. In understanding herself, Mara can navigate relationships that suit her without avoidance, pretence, distance or deception.
She can’t control what other people desire of her, but she can be plain about her own expectations.
What, then, does their relationship look like to Benjamin? Perhaps a partnership with a woman from a family of autistics, a woman who finds Benjamin’s bluntness and loquaciousness qualities to adore, not condone. Does Mara do them both a disservice to disregard the rarity in that? She thinks Benjamin her dream girl, a woman too wonderful to farewell or surrender. Isn’t it probable that Benjamin feels similarly?
Maybe confidence doesn’t explain Benjamin’s flirting with Mara, that first day, as much as the liberation of knowing that she’d found a woman whose love shouldn’t become a lie.
Never has Mara so wanted to laugh or so feared the timbre of the merriment like to escape her lips.
Counting gumnuts into piles around her skirts, longing to draw Benjamin into her embrace and knowing all the reasons she shouldn’t, Mara waits for the desperation in Benjamin’s tears to ease.
A magpie flutters onto a branch overhead, warbling.
Benjamin sniffs, pats at her skirts as if in want of something and scrubs her sleeve over her face.
“How many women told you all that? Thinking you should be grateful for scraps?” Mara exhales, working to calm her voice. Rephrasing Benjamin’s pieces of story is the best way Mara knows to indicate understanding, but she shouldn’t transform another’s pain into her own outrage. “They act like they want to court you, don’t they? And when you think you are, and it’s all good … they back off, they say you’re friends, like you talked about? And you end up being someone they bed until they find an allistic girl?”
Just when Mara thought Benjamin’s shaking done, her crying becomes a waterfall. Tears trail down her chin; blotches of water and snot mark the lapels of her coat and her floral-print skirts. She still clasps the closed parasol in one hand, the nails of the other digging into her stocking-covered calf with aching force.
What happened to the chives, Mara doesn’t know.
She pulls her gumnuts into a heap, sorting them out by size and colour. “I’ve never been able to keep someone. I meet a girl, or notice one in a new way, and at the start it’s romantic interest like people think. I’m making excuse to meet her, fantasising about her, singing ridiculous songs while I’m weeding … which is terrible, because the only person who sings worse than Esh is me.”
Benjamin’s laugh sounds more like choking.
“But when she starts falling in love with me, I’m falling out of love with her. When she’s ready to court me, or ready to make our courting serious, because she loves me, I’m trying to escape. It’s like…” Mara hesitates, trying to find a simile that will make sense to Benjamin. “It’s like someone throws water over my fire right when someone throws kerosene on hers. Hers flares higher; mine dies. Her love traps me, because I can’t bear all the things she wants and the things I lead her to believe I want. So I end it. Always.”
Benjamin, her cheeks blotched dark enough to obscure her freckles, looks up.
“It’s different with you,” Mara whispers. “I don’t love you like that anymore. I tried to! I wanted to do anything to stay in love!”
Should she tell Benjamin how much she tried and how far she went—to the extent of selling her soul to a brace of demons? Does it matter? Mara doesn’t intend on becoming a world-conquering sorcerer; what use has she for such magic, save a few more conversations with the dead? Why risk further upsetting Benjamin—who mayn’t like being the cause of Mara’s selling her soul—over something now irrelevant? Isn’t this conversation difficult enough?
“But it doesn’t feel romantic with you. You’re my best friend! You’re funny and clever, you think about things from different angles … and I can have, I think, something like what Pa and Da have with you. A companion, closeness, understanding. Someone to read with, someone to sew with, someone to talk with, someone to share a life with. And I can’t bear the thought of hurting you by telling you that I don’t want you, when I do love you!”
Benjamin releases her hold on her calf, drawing her knees up under her skirts, but she does offer Mara a brief, jerking nod.
“I can’t pretend to love you romantically. I can’t be anything than myself. You deserve to be loved in all the ways you want, and I wish I could … but I can’t.” She bites her lip, her throat tightening. “I can’t bear you settling for me if I’m not enough, but I can’t bear not being with you, either—and that isn’t fair, but…”
Hot, betraying droplets dapple Mara’s grass-stained skirts; she sniffs, angry. She doesn’t cry like this! Didn’t last night involve enough blubbering for any one person? How does Benjamin feel, hurting, only to watch the woman who caused said hurt start crying herself?
“What do you want?” Benjamin gulps and sniffs, but her strained words still sound like a smith taking a rasp to a horse’s hoof. “What do you want from us?”
“Something not romantic—”
“Romantic!” Benjamin flaps both hands, dropping the parasol; it fetches up against Eldest Ned’s headstone, startling the magpie into flight. “What does that mean, if something’s romantic? What you described wanting instead—I thought that’s what it is! That romance is people formalising their togetherness to other people! What do you want? To live together? To live apart? To get married, have children, bed? I can’t…” She drags in a whistling breath, but her congestion doesn’t keep her voice from rising. “I can’t do this when it’s so, so … imprecise! I don’t know what your loving not-romantically means! I don’t know what loving you romantically means!”
Her lips twisted and brow creased, she glances at Mara as if trying to ascertain that she isn’t angry—as if Benjamin fears annoyance or disregard for voicing something, yesterday, Mara would have considered absurd. Today, now she knows that a person may not experience or desire romance the way the world takes for granted, why shouldn’t someone feel frustrated and bewildered? Why should Mara’s notions of what is and isn’t romantic match another’s? Why shouldn’t one wave their hands at something nobody bothers to explain or clarify?
Does the world understand what upon it sets so great a value?
Does Mara understand what she, yesterday, thought she wanted?
“Go,” Mara signs, keeping her movements unhurried, her hands wide and loose. “Say what you want.”
Benjamin takes in another long breath, forcing her trembling hands rigid in the fight to calm herself. “I want someone to … bed, and live with, and have me in their family.” She stops, her voice choking, her head rocking. She looks like a bewildered chicken; she looks like Da. “I want someone I can trust around food if they insist on wheat bread. I want a bed that’s just mine for sleeping, because I can’t always sleep beside someone. I want … someone to talk to, the way we talk. I want someone to love me and mean it. I want to be a wife, with a ring and a lawyer. I don’t want … frippery. I’d rather buy a book with someone than have them buy a surprise book for me.” She frowns, shaking her head, before adding hesitantly: “I’ve read romance stories with all that. I thought that’s what romance is! Not the beds, maybe…”
Why does the world set such store on falling in love—the spectre haunting too many stories, songs and poems to count—when it doesn’t seem that significant or distinct an experience, past the early, heady days of interest’s first blossoming? Are there any hard lines to draw between romance and friendship? Are there any hard lines to draw between a marriage born of romance and a marriage born of camaraderie?
This, to Mara, feels nothing like the nerve-heightened excitement of asking a girl out. It feels mundane, ordinary, a conversation about relationships stripped of the magical and ineffable—but terrifying in realer, truer ways.
It feels like a reminder that different approaches to love aren’t and shouldn’t be the dead’s domain.
“Some nights my fathers sleep together; some nights they have their own beds. I don’t care.” Mara swallows and plucks a reddish stem of blanketweed free from the plant, entwining it around her finger. “I want that with you. Does it matter if you name it romance and I don’t?”
Benjamin sighs, her lips wobbling. “Then … then what don’t you want? What don’t you want me to do, if you say you don’t want romance? Tell me what you don’t want!”
Mara blinks, considering … and then she laughs until her side aches.
“It’s just…” she rasps, her eyes watering, because the truth now seems so obvious that Mara can’t figure out how or why she missed it. Doesn’t Benjamin ignore many social norms, including the romantic ones? Isn’t that why Mara likes her company? “I don’t know!” Mara braces her palms against the ground, fighting to regain her breath. “You don’t … you don’t do most of the things I don’t want! And … and I didn’t know to recognise it when I have it!”
She doesn’t want a girl who moons after her, who expects to be told she’s loved countless times a day, who yearns for surprise gifts and shows of affection, who wants to curl up in another girl’s embrace to watch the sunset. She doesn’t want, in the wake of her fading love, the romantic notions that once so enthralled her.
Benjamin wants a ring and a wife. She wants stability, recognition, respect.
Can’t Mara offer those things, in her own companionate way?
“Do you want me to wear your ring?” she asks, her heart hammering against her ribs, her palms slick with sweat. “Would you be content just wearing mine, if you know that it binds us?”
“In Astreut, only a woman wears the ring—but a woman can only wed a man, so I think it less a marker of love than a statement of relationship or possession by the house or guild to which the woman has now joined.” Benjamin frowns, her lips pursed; Mara fights the urge to comment and waits for Benjamin to think her way to a conclusion. “Thomas Jess doesn’t wear a ring; I imagine it’s bothersome for a smith. Perhaps for a witch as well? Hands in the soil, preparing herbs and oils, sewing a wound? But for a teacher, it isn’t a difficulty.” She hesitates, a slight smile easing her face. “Is this a ringbonding?”
No, he doesn’t. It never occurred to Mara to ponder his reasoning.
Is her fathers’ love that different to her own?
“Oh, yes,” Mara croaks, wondering how she didn’t appreciate until this moment Benjamin’s generosity. “We’ll get a lawyer! I’ll give up wheat forever … but I’d like to make bread without it. Can we? I know you said there’s other flours? Both my fathers snore, so if I inherit that, having our own bedrooms is just sensible. And you know my things go everywhere and I’m terrible at remembering to put them away, so I should have my own disaster room! I can’t cook—I spend so much time concentrating on spells and potions that I can’t keep my mind on more of it, so everything burns. I’ll garden, I’ll grow any vegetable you want, I’ll sew all the boring things like sheets … but please cook. Can you cook? I know you’re at the boarding house—”
Benjamin breaks into a snuffling giggle before blowing her nose into her sleeve—and then Mara laughs herself at Benjamin’s screwed-up crimson face, as a trail of snot dangles from her nose to her forearm before landing across the skirt of her coat.
“I don’t know where my handkerchief is!” she wails, flapping one hand while scrubbing the other arm on a patch of weed. “I used my sleeve one to wipe the board and my pocket one to bind Nora’s knee and my skirt one … I had it, before, but it isn’t in my stocking or my sleeve…”
Mara, grateful for her one useful act of preparation, plucks hers from the basket.
“Thank you.” Benjamin blows her nose several times before swiping at her coat. “I cook for myself at the boarding house! Theo hates that I do it—I’d love my own kitchen.” She sighs and shakes her head. “I don’t know about yeasted bread—it’s hard to maintain structure without wheat flour—but I can make muffins, some soda breads and griddle cakes, depending on what flour blends I can get from Malvade.”
Mara doesn’t know what Benjamin means about “structure” and promises herself that she’ll find out. “Good enough. I wonder if there’s cooking spells in Mother Hayes’s books? There must be some witch or magician who went ‘I can’t eat wheat, but I still want cake’ and made a spell to help! Or even ordinary spells for bread I can adapt…?”
Why, in all the hours they’ve spent walking out, or drinking at the pub or sitting by the fire with Sooty wedged in between them, didn’t they discuss this? Yes, Mara knows what meals and drinks to avoid ordering for Benjamin and how to handle and store the food she eats at home. But why didn’t Mara think to look through her inheritance of witchy tomes … or ask questions that lead to revelations about baking? Why did they speak of arbitrary, academic things, like the sapience possessed by a cat, over their own struggles with family, relationships and food?
They both feared an impossible future. They both feared to risk frightening away the other.
In obsessing on her inability to love—or remain in love—one way, Mara has only held the woman she adores at arm’s length.
“There’s the house behind the shop,” she whispers, pushing the stem free from her finger. “Mother Hayes’s house. It seemed … silly, to live there alone, so I let the drovers have it. We can make it ours when they’re all out for the summer. No grain of wheat shall ever pass the threshold. A bedroom each. Make one room a library—no, the sitting room a library! And bookshelves in the kitchen!”
Only then does Mara realise that Benjamin hasn’t yet said the one word that matters … but how can she, when Mara hasn’t yet asked the question?
Saluria and Sillemon, as if sensing her tension, push their magic into her skin.
The loose coil of blanketweed, the reddish stem split under the force of her hands, sits in her lap like an egg in a nest of stained russet and brown calico. Mara isn’t the sort of woman who takes undue care for her clothing; few of her frocks are left unmarked by sap, dirt, salves and teas. She’s a witch, by title and name! Why shouldn’t she dress like one?
She’s also a sorcerer, a woman who sold her soul for a power she never needed.
Why not use up a little of it?
Mara closes the coil inside her palm, sending her demons’ magic streaming through her fingers and into the plant. The sensation sets her teeth on edge, a cold tingling at odds with the sweat dampening her neck and back. She hasn’t the least idea what she’s doing or what she wants—just something that will look pretty on a schoolmarm’s finger. Something like a butterfly preserved under glass, like food preserved by magic, like green life made forever unwilting and displayed in a glass jar … but always a match to Mara’s dirty fingernails.
Help me, she whispers at her brace. Help me make this.
Saluria and Sillemon surge forwards in her mind, their will shaping the ring in her hand but leaving her thoughts untouched. Dot Hickmann believes demons should be feared, but Mara’s brace has only helped and protected her, even from herself. How many stories and assumptions, spoken as if applicable to all, bear her no fruit? How many stories and assumptions is she yet to question?
“I know there’s so many things we don’t know now that we’ll need to talk about. But I know … you’re my friend. I want you in my life. I want to work out how we can be together. Even if you understand this as romance, as long as you know that I don’t.”
She draws a breath as her demons withdraw and looks down. A seamless loop of blanketweed sits in her palm, the green leaves pushed out and flat to rest against a finger. A testing nail tells her the plant still possesses pliability but resists breaking and tearing, the colours as bright as if fresh-picked. Like a child’s mimicry of an adult’s ring, perhaps; an unenchanted vine coiled around a finger.
Mundane, on first and even second glance. Perfect.
The squeak issuing from Benjamin’s throat, as she peers at Mara’s hand, does indeed sound kitten-like.
“Romantic lovers exchange gold and flowers,” she says, holding her ring out to Benjamin, “but lifetime friends exchange grass and weeds, because there’ll always be a weed in the garden.”
Benjamin signs one word in answer: yes.
The ring fits as well on Benjamin’s finger as her arm fits around Mara’s shoulders.
“I don’t … I don’t understand,” Benjamin rasps, sniffling, “what’s so profound about whatever you think romance is to you, that I’d … value it more than…” Snot bubbles at her nose; she blows it again on Mara’s sodden, wretched-looking handkerchief. “I want to be with you, more than anything—no, not anything. I want air to breathe; I wouldn’t choose you over air. Or food I can eat, or water, or my family. Or my work, because teaching is important! I think it better to say that I want this more than many things, but…”
Mara’s grin sets her cheeks to aching.
Two women sob and hug by turns before they come to sprawling across the grown-over grave, one freckled, beringed hand entwined with one brown, grass-stained one. The sun slips further towards the western horizon, and a distant part of Mara feels as though she should begin to think about home, dinner, chores, the rub to make for Isa Fisher’s back and hips. A mundane conversation, after all, takes place in the ordinary world.
They need to ensure that more people can understand and celebrate its worth.
“If I let go of you,” Mara murmurs, “then we’ll have to leave, and since Esh knows I was going to talk to you, there’s no way we can go back home without a conversation first. I have to tell him! And our fathers, and then they’ll all want to celebrate by discussing the right number of shelves in a pantry, so … no. I’m not going to let go. At least not for another half hour.”
“Back home?” Benjamin angles her head, blinking like a bemused owl. “Together? Why, if not to tell them?”
“You said to say when.” Mara, winking, hooks Benjamin’s ankle with her own boot. “When, when, when. If you—”
Benjamin releases Mara’s hand with startling alacrity, but while she opens her mouth to object, no sound emerges—because Benjamin, with one hand and a series of hip-wiggles that draws Mara’s entire attention, works free a set of plain linen drawers from underneath her skirts. Benjamin slips one booted-foot free; the drawers flop to her other ankle, tangling against her stocking.
“There’s nobody here but the dead.” She kicks the drawers free, gathering her skirts in one hand and tugging down her bodice with the other. “They only talk once a year, so…”
“Legs,” Mara croaks, struggling to divest herself of at least part of her clothing while Benjamin’s satchel and boots land on the blanketweed, one of her stockings joining the drawers atop Eldest Ned’s headstone. “A girl’s got to show off her legs. I demand it.”
Benjamin tugs her skirts up to her knees. Her plump, soft calves are almost as freckled as her face and forearms, with a scattering of light brown spots and darker moles dappling her pale skin. “Show me yours, then. What do you like doing? I like doing with lips. Can I? Where can I?”
Aunt Rosie and the residents of Dead Horse Hill’s cemetery may discuss this unseemly act of panky a year from now, but Mara’s far too busy admiring—and being admired by—a pretty girl to care.