Fiction: The Complexity of Human Decency

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

When Mama Lewis continues to browbeat Suki into becoming the kind of girl who doesn’t tick off unwanted romantic suitors, she knows the best thing to do is leave. The port city of Malvade offers work enough to pay for her own room, but Suki’s freedom comes with long hours, a leaking roof, outhouse mould and a yearning for a world that offers her more than bare subsistence and continued disregard.

A red-robed priest of the Sojourner may hold answer and opportunity … if only she can endure a conversation with someone preaching a truth anathema to everything a proud woman of Freehome should believe.

Does freedom in one direction count if she still finds limitations in others?

Contains: A nonpartnering, forthright allo-aro trans woman struggling with her family and culture’s amatonormativity; an anti-capitalist priest of the Sojourner preaching belief and rebellion; and a city cursed with excessive precipitation.

Setting: Marchverse, several decades earlier than my other Sirenne-referencing pieces.

Content Advisory: This piece references the amatonormativity common to allo-aros where casual sexual experiences are presumed to lead to or develop into romantic relationships, along with the ways these assumptions fuel and justify the protagonist’s mothers’ emotionally abusive behaviours. This story also has Suki referring to herself with the misogynistic term “bitch”.

Length: 3, 580 words.

Note: This is a sequel to last week’s Hallo, Aro story, Abrasive. While you don’t need to read any other Marchverse piece to understand this one, I do recommend first perusing Suki’s introductory short. This is also a prequel to another, longer story I’ll be posting in the next few weeks.

On good days, Suki tells herself that she left home because nobody likes being the village bitch. On bad days, when she has two coins to her name and her leaking roof demands more bowls than she owns, she can’t deny that she fled her own mothers. When winter’s wind hurls rain against the pub’s windows, promising a miserable walk home and a sodden mattress waiting in her garret, it’s hard not to feel that those good days come few and far between.

In the city of Malvade, she has her own room. Nobody expects her to court or wed. She’s free.

Why isn’t she happy?

Suki sighs and works her mop over the barroom’s slate floor, scrubbing at splotches of spilled wine left to dry overnight. Was it so terrible to be hated? Everyone stopped seeing her as a romantic prospect … but after village gossip transformed her frustration into maliciousness, nobody wished her friendship. Taking at a sweet boy like Joeri became the last straw for rejected men and offended Mama Lewis types, leaving few in Freehome who didn’t regard Suki as the epitome of callous selfishness.

She could have endured that if Mama Lewis didn’t spend her waking hours lecturing Suki on politeness and decorum.

“Why?” She kneels to wring out the mop’s wine-stained fronds, wincing at the cold water stinging her cracked skin. “Why did she stand back and let her—”

A chill gust slices through her blouse as the front door creaks open, revealing a small figure in a soaking red cloak and hood.

She looks up, shivering. Malvadans bear a duck-like immunity to foul weather, but they’re several hours short of lunch, the barroom ostensibly closed while Suki cleans after last night’s revelry. Cookie and the house boys let her be until Suki puts up her mop and duster, but the punters pay her no mind: Suki is just the easily-replaced sweeper of floors, maker of beds and cleaner of privies. Why should they avoid adding an extra hour’s cleaning to her day through their carelessness?

If she’s polite, nobody bothers themselves to cause her less work.

If she’s waspish and snide, nobody wants anything to do with her outside working hours.

“Wipe your feet. I’ll wipe you on the mat if you tread water on my clean floor.”

Bitch.

She should be used to it.

“Of course.” The newcomer stands in the doorway, wringing their cloak out onto the stoop. “Dreadful rain! Is it always like this?”

“Nearly,” she mutters, annoyed by their casual friendliness—or, more correctly, the inevitable collapse of any willingness to sociability. How long will it take before she offends them, too? “I don’t know how they stand it.”

Unfortunately, she suspects tolerance for Malvade’s storms comes paired with her landlord’s obliviousness to leaking roofs, muddy entranceways and the foamy mould consuming the shared outhouse’s walls. How is it right that Nathalie has simple rooms to let, rooms made clean and comfortable from her workers’ labour, but she won’t pay wages enough for Suki to afford one? How is it right that she’s supposed to fix the roof and clean the mould at home, because her landlord won’t, after long days spent working for Nathalie?

Today, even Mama Lewis doesn’t feel so terrible an option.

After Joeri, she barraged Suki with an onslaught of reprimand for anything even adjacent to abruptness. The slightest tinge of frustration or disagreement in Suki’s voice and expression provoked unrelenting lectures; anything not a placid smile and perfect obedience earnt outpourings of shame and embarrassment. Worse, Mama Polly’s silence in the face of such correction left Suki prey to creeping doubt. Was she wrong to talk to Joeri that way? Or her mother? Wouldn’t Mama Polly say something if she wasn’t?

Suki left, without note or apology, before she lost sight of the belief that she shouldn’t bow to a cruelty cloaked within manners and decorum.

It can’t be right to take less offense at a man’s disregarding her wishes and their agreement than at the frustrated woman telling him to leave.

It shouldn’t be.

Malvade’s dislike of her, though, suggests a singular problem: Suki.

“Aren’t you local?” The stranger closes the door before removing their cloak. Underneath lies a red robe belted with braided green leather, its sleevelessness emphasising the bony slenderness of shoulders and hips. Both belt and robe, she has learnt since her arrival in Malvade, mark a priest of the Sojourner, one who does something called “guiding”. The rich brown skin of a bald head glistens in the lamplight, moisture trickling down cheeks and neck dappled with a motley of ecru spots and marked by enough fine creases to suggest middle age. Thick eyebrows creep up their brow above a lopsided smile; the looseness of their body, as though perennially at ease, has her thinking of those last, heady Midsummer hours.

Did she once move through the world with such cheerful confidence? Why can’t she remember what that feels like?

“Northern Stormcoast.” Suki takes her bucket to another patch of slate dark with spilled wine. “Less stormy. Ironically.”

The priest pulls a face, the kind of exaggerated expression less about feeling than demonstrating sympathy. “I’ve travelled these last few years, but I once stayed by the Great Southern Plain.” They hang the dripping cloak on a peg by the door and, with furious intensity, scrape their booted feet on the mat. “It rains, but inconsistently. Some years you’re celebrating.”

She’s lived long enough around wheat farmers to know the ways rain conjures relief and sorrow, so she offers a reluctant nod. “Can I help you?”

“I just want to wait out the wet. May I stand before the fire a while?”

“Sure.” She hesitates, fearing further conversation, before deciding that the priest merits warning. “When Nathalie and Piet come out, you’ll have to buy lunch, but if you leave before half an hour or so, maybe you’ll miss them.” Suki checks to ensure neither has appeared from the kitchen or down the stairs before rolling her eyes. “They’re city.”

Such a request will never hold back home, where politeness reigns above freedom. At least here, living in a city possessed of storms and religion, she can tell a man that she didn’t promise herself to him, followed by throwing his clothes out the window. If the biddy renting the room opposite hers and her landlord regarded her with no friendliness after, they’d offered no warmth before the incident, either. What of it, in the boarding houses full of people dwelling in singleness by choice or circumstance? It’s almost acceptance … save for the daily reminder that the partnered folks in equally overpriced rooms can together afford better boarding houses owned by kinder landlords. Or at least have more money left over after rent for additional bowls and blankets!

Can she bear to live with a man, to pretend at romance?

A moot question, given her current “disagreeable” status.

“On the one hand, it costs to maintain a warm fire and sheltering roof. Coin is the rotten heart of a port city.” The priest, circling around fresh-mopped patches of floor, heads for the fireplace—a great stone monstrosity forming the dividing wall between barroom and kitchen. Boxes for wood and coal sit on either side while a cluster of candles, lamps and vases filled with crocheted flowers occupies the wide mantlepiece. The sheet of slate before the grate crunches under the priest’s boots as they stand too close to the fire for safety. “On the other, those with more. The owners surely have more warmth than I!”

Her mothers kept similar flowers in empty bottles on their mantle.

Mamas Polly and Lewis sat in their rocking chairs on cosy winter evenings and, should time remain after the household mending and sewing, crocheted life-size tulip heads. Suki cut leaf shapes from the ends of an old woollen blanket, sewing these and the tulips onto cloth-wrapped wire to arrange like real bouquets, forever unwilting no matter how hot the fire.

Does someone else now make bouquets from her mothers’ tulips?

Annoyed at the pointlessness of her thoughts, Suki purses her lips. One good memory doesn’t mean safety, so why yearn for the impossible? “What does that mean? You all speak like it stands on its own, but it doesn’t. It just doesn’t.”

“What does what mean?” The priest turns before the fire like a chicken on a spit, the paler patches of skin suffused with red, the darker patches reflecting the light. No suggestion of irritation or annoyance shows on their lean, elongated face.

“‘Those with more.’ That’s not even a sentence, but you all say it over and over.”

“Did you have a red priest at home?”

Not only do they ask questions, they don’t sound the least bit offended! “No. My ho—my village is Freehome. Our founders fled Astreut to build a place where nobody’s bowing to gods and decrees. Where what you should and shouldn’t do isn’t defined by absurdities but actual human decency, the only thing ever needed.” She hesitates, struck by the feeling that her ancestors’ avowed belief that no god or religion need dictate morality has failed her … or, should someone ask everyone else’s opinion, she it. “Holy tomes shouldn’t be necessary to know and do the right thing. Nor should priests. We don’t have them. Or need them.”

What’s that if not a splinter driven underneath a priest’s fingernails?

The priest frowns, as if considering.

Suki sighs and works the mop underneath a row of tables. If Mama Lewis is correct and her anger is a moral failure, disregarding other people’s needs, why are people permitted to ignore hers? If everyone in Freehome understands the pain of requesting that she smile should someone purposefully misunderstand her gender, why do they demand politeness when purposefully misunderstanding her wish to remain unpartnered?

“It is … absurd. You’re right! A figure in history, apocryphally a leader of people that fled the Old World after the Change, wrote down three or four things, and that’s a religion—oh, and this person is a god, probably? What’s a god? Why do gods need priests? What’s belief in a god? Do I believe? Should I? How isn’t it all absurd?” They shrug, breaking into a wide smile framing crooked-set teeth. “Ask a hundred people and you’ll get a hundred answers, but for me … it’s a guidebook, telling me how to frame and communicate the things important to me to, with and for other interested people.”

Suki allows that her upbringing encompasses only the horrors of the church that caused her ancestors to abandon Astreut for a priestless peace, but reason does nothing to lessen the feeling of alien incomprehensibility.

“The full second precept is ‘those with more serve to guide those with less’, but you’ll hear it shortened to ‘those with more serve those with less’.” The priest works their fingers together, their bony appendages shockingly long compared to the more proportionate size of their arms and torso. “I’m in two minds about that, even as I use the latter myself. But what’s priesthood without a dash of righteous hypocrisy? If I keep questioning about what I think, why, and in what circumstances the less complex version owns more utility, the contradiction can stand … I think.”

Suki leans on the mop’s wooden handle, the floor forgotten. A distant part of her knows that she risks scolding at best if Nathalie finds Suki dithering while half the tile remains sticky with last night’s spillage. The rest doesn’t care: how can anyone parse such thoughts and clean at the same time?

The priest’s speech feels like someone tossed three and a half jigsaw puzzles in the same box, shook the pieces together and smashed the box onto the floor. She needs to sort through all the bits for the corner pieces before she can begin to look at the rest, but such a jumble leaves her no simple task!

Serve? Is that like how she works for Nathalie? Yet if the priest’s meaning about the fire is true, shouldn’t it be the other way around? What’s hypocritical about using one over the other?

“That’s all…”

“Absurd? Confusing?”

“I guess,” she murmurs. “Absurd? Yes, but…”

Priests, said her teachers, discouraged thoughts and questions.

This one asks them, and that should terrify her, but “fear” feels too defined and distinct a response. Too unthinking, too incurious. Is it wrong to find appealing the priest’s lack of surety? To find relief in what seems the deliberate complication of something that could have been rendered more simply? To feel that doubt and challenge contains more honesty than her people’s certitude?

“May I ask you a question?”

Suki just nods.

“How do your people tell you what makes a moral person? Are there rules? Who delivers them? How do you know what does and doesn’t constitute ‘human decency’?”

“Your parents tell you,” she says, irritated. “Or your teachers. Village elders. Obviously.”

“What if they’re delivering a pattern of morality that’s harmful?”

She stiffens. What if? “Since priests do that, too, what’s your point?”

“Exactly!” The priest claps their hands as though snideness betokens academic argument. “A priest has similar social authority, prone to the same failures as anyone providing a pattern to shape a community’s behaviour. A priest is simply another mechanism for delivering moral argument. I’d argue that the more people available to present different patterns, or different approaches to the same pattern, the less likely one will be harmed by dangerous patterns, but we’re no more and no less necessary than your teachers or parents.”

Nervousness—the terror of Freehome’s resounding, uncomplicated answer—lends a high, childish tone to her voice. “What if everyone else thinks you … something you do, immoral? What does that … make you? Harmful?”

The priest crooks their head. “Are you claiming morality to avoid or justify the consequences? Are your behaviours denying others freedom, personhood, safety? Why do they think this immoral? Conversely, are their behaviours denying you freedom, personhood, safety? Are they claiming morality to avoid or justify the consequences? You question, and you keep questioning.” They sigh and shrug. “Should you emerge with a contradicting answer … you leave Astreut to build a Stormcoast village based on different moral principles. Or you remain in open rebellion by guiding local communities in rejecting the deification of coin.”

She doesn’t know what that last sentence means: the priest’s vocabulary pushes against the upper limits of her village education. The rest makes sense in that uncertain, complicated way devoid of easy answers. She exhales in a shaking relief, considering. “Mama says if everyone else thinks you’re the problem, you are.”

“True, sometimes. Oppressive, others. Overly simplistic, always. Have you considered this thing you do? Questioned it?”

She’s done nothing less since leaving Freehome.

“I can’t believe,” she says at length, “that it’s … moral to disrespect someone’s wish not to court. Or fair to be angry at me for being angry about being pressured … although fair isn’t the same as moral, I don’t think? Even if I want it to be.”

The priest leans against the mantlepiece, positioned close enough to the grate that Suki half expects the long robe to smoulder. Their half-lidded eyes rest on her above loose, neutral lips. What do they see? A coltish young woman with water-roughened hands and oft-patched knotted-up skirts, her stockings darned at the knees with a brown wool that doesn’t quite match? Something more abstract or esoteric? Or just the village bitch, snappish and shrewish, labouring in a far-away city as penance for rejecting Mama Lewis’s attempts to help her?

“I’ll listen,” they say gently, “if you wish to share with me why you left your former home.”

She shouldn’t want to, but Mama Polly offered Suki nothing kinder than her disconnected silence. The village part of her retreats, forgotten, as the rest of her spills her story like water gushing from an uncorked bottle. She even abandons her mop to sit backwards on a barroom chair, her knees drawn up under her skirts.

Not in the entirety of the last six months have her lips shaped so many words.

The priest remains by the fireplace, at times shifting to dry another portion of robe. They nod and gesture, as if to assure her of their attention, but never do they interrupt or interject. Perhaps they keep their quiet apurpose, for Suki finds herself talking about more than would-be beaus, Mama Lewis’s expectations of romance and the village’s shunning: “I’m not allowed to feel,” she whispers at the chair’s uppermost railing. “I’m not allowed to be angry or upset, because everything I do makes Mama ashamed, and while Mama Polly doesn’t mind that I don’t want to marry, she never stood up for me. She never did anything to make Mama Lewis stop, never…”

Mama Polly’s refusal to defend Suki, she realises, cuts deeper than Mama Lewis’s denial.

How can Mama Polly understand and accept Suki but still let Mama Lewis hurt her?

Easy, Suki thinks, burying her head in her arms. Mama Lewis doggedly follows the rules in hope of finding their promised happiness and safety, unwilling or unable to question the moral pattern of their village. Easier for Mama Lewis to weep and manipulate than to change even her own home, never mind the assumptions and limitations of her broader community. Easier for Mama Polly to stand by as speechless witness than to challenge her wife’s treatment of their daughter.

Easy.

She doesn’t want to be the kind of person who doesn’t question or challenge. She doesn’t want their brand of comforting morality. She doesn’t value politeness and conformity above truth.

She’ll sooner be the village bitch.

Suki chooses this … and that realisation feels like the giddy, relieving rush of breath after winded lungs stop seizing. She isn’t a failure, unable to oblige the rules. She isn’t a bully, cruel for the sake of enjoying another’s pain. She isn’t a coward, running away from her family to avoid responsibility. Suki chooses this because she won’t accept the alternative, and that makes her like her kin.

Like the ancestors who left Astreut to build Freehome.

“Are you open to further rebellion?”

Startled by the similarity to her own thoughts, Suki looks up to find the priest smiling at her. “What do you mean?”

The priest spreads their hands. “Priesthood. Perhaps a cloistered order: your own room, no expectation of marriage or relationships, a community of people working to support each other? A community prone to … questions, conversations, absurdity. A lot of absurdity.” Their lips curl upwards into that warm, broad grin. “A community of people who aren’t afraid to think.”

She barks an incredulous laugh. “A priest?”

“Belief may be a prerequisite in other religions, but not with the Sojourner.”

A priest who doesn’t believe in a god. Suki frowns, pondering the aghast horror to be experienced by her mothers should they learn that a priest invited her to join a religious order. “What do you believe, then? In your work? Is this it, this shaking people about?”

“Shaking?” Their chuckle sounds as rich as a magpie’s morning warble, a once-familiar greeting now alien in Malvade’s crooked, crowded streets. “Yes … I suppose that’s true. I believe in the need to guide people into finding ways to better serve themselves and each other—and live without obeisance to wealth and the wealthy.”

Suki kneels on floors owned by people who won’t pay her enough to afford a room as nice as those she cleans, in a city where workers like her are disposable at best. Does freedom in one direction count if she still finds limitations in others? Does she want to stay here, struggling to survive, when she can’t expect appreciation, never mind a fairer wage? Does she want to stay here … or go elsewhere in hope of finding people who talk as though she’s more than disagreeable?

“And I can do that? Or something like it?”

“That’s why you’ll serve first as acolyte—to find your own path. You may prefer to serve with skills in gardening or sewing. You may find yourself guiding the community, inside or outside your home monastery. You may find yourself guiding other priests, or studying, or wandering from city to city. All service has value.” They hesitate, brown eyes flickering towards the kitchen door. “I’ve also no interest in partnering. I’ve never had this questioned by another priest.”

It sounds idealistic, fantastic.

It sounds absurd, ridiculous.

Perhaps this won’t work. So what? What does she risk other than the terrifying certainty that this path will upend everything she knows about herself and lead her further away from what was once home?

She isn’t Mama Lewis. She isn’t Mama Polly.

She chooses not to be.

Suki wipes her hands on her apron, stands and nods, ignoring Nathalie—standing in the doorway, her lips parted as though on the precipice of scolding. “I’m Suki. I’d like to try to be a priest. But I’m … not polite or demure. Or even nice. Mostly disagreeable. Bitchy.”

“I’m Amadi of Sirenne, and some telepathic talent means that few people don’t find me disagreeable. A good priest, anyway, should be a smidge confronting. Demure? Why?” The priest snorts and beckons her towards the fire. “Welcome, Suki, to our rebellion.”

Welcome.

She crosses the room to join Amadi by the fireplace.

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