An unexpected letter sees Suki of Sirenne, a red-robed priest of the Sojourner, doing the unimaginable: returning home to farewell a dying Mama Polly. After ten years of studying the ways of Spoken Service, she’s built a life that serves her nature … even if she’s still inclined to a sharp turn of phrase. Can’t she now explain her feelings and choices in ways easier for Mama Lewis to accept? Shouldn’t her mothers now be easier to manage?
Yet one conversation leaves Suki feeling that she’ll never stop being the brittle, abrasive young woman who left Freehome … and presents her a problem only solvable by remembering priesthood’s first lesson.
Patience comes more easily when free of disregard and diminishment.
Contains: A nonpartnering, forthright allo-aro trans woman returning to her hometown to endure, temporarily, her mother’s amatonormativity and emotional abuse.
Setting: Marchverse, still several decades earlier than my other Sirenne 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 mother’s emotionally abusive behaviour. It also depicts the pressuring and manipulation present in emotional abuse, including use of one’s love as a silencing tactic. Suki refers to herself and her mother, in the process of reflecting on their similarities, with the misogynistic term “bitch”.
Length: 3, 526 words.
Note the first: This is a sequel to Abrasive and The Complexity of Human Decency. You’ll need to have read both in order to make best sense of this story.
Note the second: One of the hardest things about this kind of dysfunctional/abusive relationship is the inability to express one’s inner world without the conversation disintegrating into an opportunity for further erasure/denial. Many of us don’t get that fairy-tale experience of belated acceptance, but we needs must work to find closure without it.
She expects to startle at a decade’s differences: fresh-painted doors and flower boxes, new curtains, new people. Yet aside from the obvious, like the fresh-cut wood of a porch addition, Suki can’t identify many changes in the village she once called home. Did Roderick’s sister always hang floral-sprigged calico curtains in her windows? Did the feed store sign show a sheep or a cow? If she once knew these things as well as her own name, why can’t she now recollect them?
Her memories offer the detail of a poor watercolour painting: brushstrokes and colour suggesting, not replicating, a scene.
The main road—the only track dignified with the word—leads past the public house, stables and shopfronts on its way through the village. Folks stare, in the way anyone in a small community gawks at a strange person on a strange horse, but Suki, used to provoking a priest’s attention, pays them no mind. On the farthest edge of the village, where houses become farmsteads, waits her doom: a cottage on a small plot, little more than a yard for chickens, a kitchen garden, a paddock, the hayshed and a small barn.
She stills her seat in the saddle, her horse drawing to a hopeful halt, and looks at the sheet of paper held crumpled in her leather glove.
Please forward to Suki Lewis, writes an exacting hand on the uppermost side of the paper, living somewhere about the town of Sirenne on the Great Southern Plain, likely working as a cook or sewist.
How high did a magician price the tracking spell needed to find Suki’s approximate location? How did her mothers afford it? The letter, despite the lack of address, arrived in town … where it lingered for seven weeks before someone realised that “Suki Lewis” may mean the priest. She can’t blame the postmaster, accustomed to the Plains tradition of priests discarding their mothernames. She can’t blame her mothers, having no reason to accurately guess their daughter’s occupation.
Three months after Mama Lewis put pen to paper, Suki stares at an empty porch and closed fly door.
She’s a priest of the Sojourner. She’s spent ten years studying the arts of a guiding priest specialising in Spoken Service. Her palms sweat beneath her gloves, but surely Suki has reason to think that this time, she can better navigate her mothers? Better navigate Mama Lewis?
The farm also looks little different: brown and tan chickens scratching about, a black cow picketed in the paddock near a dun pony, white sheets and towels hanging on the line. Mama Lewis apparently continues her love of order: Suki spies no cobwebs, peeling paint or overgrown vegetables. Just a scruffy-looking tabby cat watching her from its position atop the hen house, the small cottage with its wide porch, and her mothers’ marked absence.
What can it mean for Mama Polly that everything looks so ordinary?
Suki’s horse, Bobby, turns to rub his mouth against her boot, smearing the dusty leather with a glob of green saliva.
“Whatever happens, I’ll steal you a carrot from Mama’s cellar,” she murmurs before sighing, sliding her feet from the stirrups and dismounting. “Hallo, the house? Hallo? Anyone home?”
“Who are…” A gasping breath precedes a doubtful exclamation as the door reveals an older woman in a blue dress: “Suki?”
Mama Lewis stops on the threshold, her chin raised, her hawk’s eyes fixed on Suki’s face. Once grey-streaked brown hair now lacks any suggestion of youth’s colour, matched by deeper-set creases framing eyes and a new looseness to the skin covering jaw and knuckles. Mama Lewis still stands tall, her arms muscled, her face rigid, her shoulders broad. She still looks prim and demure, with her mane caught in a schoolmarm-ish knot, her apron and petticoats starched bone white, and the collar of her plain workdress brushing her chin.
Not even age’s march softens her devotion to propriety … or diminishes the nausea lurking in the pit of Suki’s stomach.
Why does a single glimpse of Mama Lewis provoke the gut-twisting shame felt by a girl returning home after running out during a heated argument? Suki left without note or explanation, a grown woman making her own choices, after concluding that she won’t find happiness or safety by remaining underneath her mothers’ roof. She has no reason to feel ashamed. Doesn’t she?
What does one do in this circumstance? The rhythms and patterns of a guiding priest, with all their solemnity and structure, feel tragically impotent when applied to her current nervousness. Smile? Hug? Ask after Mama Polly? Pretend that a decade of years doesn’t lie between her and her mothers?
“You’re late.” Mama Lewis speaks, almost scolding, as though Suki idled in running an errand to the general store. “What are you wearing?”
Startled, Suki looks down at her robe, only to laugh when she remembers how little this piece of the Stormcoast knows of the Sojourner. How did she forget that? The simple cut and scarlet colour of the sleeveless garment, worn over jodhpurs for riding, speaks of her vow to serve life and the living over abundance and wealth. On the Plains or in Malvade, a robe carries her from street to palace, respectable in any circumstance. Here, perhaps only a deviant fashion hailing from a distant city?
Freehome’s founders discarded Astreut, its priests … and fewer of their teachings than the living villagers like to acknowledge.
“I’m a priest of the Sojourner, Mama. The red robe and belt mark a priest. I’m late because the postmaster didn’t realise your letter needed to go the monastery, and it sat first at the hall for seven weeks. I rode out the very next morning.” Smiling feels dishonest when she’s never successfully falsified geniality; Suki tries for a neutral sort of expressionlessness without hope of achievement. “Is Mama Polly … did she … is she…?”
So odd to think that she’s gained a defiant comfort with death! She’s learnt to offer guidance to the grieving and the dying, to lead the Farewell, to speak of a path heading past the boundaries of this life into a nebulous something else when asked to confront or reassure. She’s learnt even to guide away those seeking to rush, uneedfully early, into its embrace. Life and death cast each other’s shadows; she can’t serve one without respect for the other.
When death beckons for her mother, however, Suki has no words.
She wants to see you. You owe her this small consideration, a tiny recompense for the grief you brought us.
“You’re a … a … priest?” Mama Lewis draws a sharp breath, stepping back against the closed fly door. “Why would you do that? I can’t believe… You ran away to be a priest? Why would you? How could you?”
“Anyone would think I just confessed to being a professional sheep-shit eater!” The words fly from Suki’s tongue as though the last decade never happened, and she gasps, horrified. She practiced with Amadi to avoid antagonistic retorts, so why does she speak like a girl who doesn’t know better? “I’m so sorry! Mama … I don’t expect you to like this. I want to explain my life to you, tell you about my home and my work! But for the moment, can you … just consider this something you don’t understand, but something I know you can accept for my sake, because my priesthood makes me happy?”
Mama Lewis’s eyes widen above parted lips, but no sound emerges.
Suki, twisting the ends of Bobby’s reins, waits, but after the passing of a small eternity, she risks the question: “Is Mama Polly…” Alive? Ill? Dead? “What happened?”
“You put this on me without warning, and now you want me to just ignore it? Pretend it away?” Mama Lewis’s voice creeps up several registers. “Why do you always disregard my feelings?”
“You—” Suki stops, counting under her breath: “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six…” She wants to snap, scream, snarl—again a young woman defiant in her rejection of politeness, knowing that no lack of abrasiveness will earn her mother’s tolerance. “I do want to explain my life to you. I mean to. Can you please first tell me about Mama Polly while I tend my horse?”
She turns to her gelding, running up her stirrups and loosening the girth; Bobby releases a huff of grass-scented breath.
“Suki, you can’t just ignore me—”
“I don’t mean to ignore you, but my horse is standing here. Where can I put him up?”
“You always do this—”
“Where can I put up my horse?”
“Where can I put him up? I didn’t think this so confusing a concept!”
Mama Lewis folds her arms over her well-starched apron and jerks an elbow at the barn, her nostrils flaring. “You’ll need to clear out a stall. The ones with straw are for the pony and cow.” Only her reddening cheeks and forehead warm the frost in her words: “I see that you haven’t bothered to learn your manners since you ran away.”
Suki’s years as acolyte involved many lessons on navigating difficult situations without making cutting comments to push people into leaving her alone. She’ll never master patience, but she’s more tolerant of others than she ever thought possible … even if she spends an hour venting her daily frustrations on a leather training dummy. Even if trusting another’s best intentions and willingness to accommodate her if only she voices her concerns will never be her first or even second instinct.
Patience comes more easily when free of disregard and diminishment.
“I thought bad manners,” she growls, “means leaving a guest and her tacked horse standing on the doorstep while you criticise her speech, dress and calling.” She clucks to Bobby and, as she has many a time before, stalks towards the barn.
Mama Lewis, as she has many a time before, gasps in wounded horror.
Suki isn’t gentle or soft, but she also isn’t cruel. She doesn’t do well with Sirenne’s guests, her directness rendering both uncomfortable, but she does guide its priests. Sometimes people need encouragement in the art of smashing plates in a private courtyard while voicing their pain in curse words of decreasing politeness. Sometimes priests need somebody who can shepherd the acknowledgement of the poisonous and disconcerting before it taints their service. Sometimes priests need sympathy from one who can be trusted not to judge or condemn sharp truths, and who better to provide this than a priest herself notoriously blunt?
Suki of Sirenne, having learnt her own worth, bears witness to the feeling carried by her fellow priests.
Suki Lewis, long years away from Amadi’s lessons, hates everyone who pushes her deeper into a desperate defiance.
Her throat tightens. Her hands itch for something to smash. She’s a priest, serving in an order dedicated to a healing discipline. Why can’t she do better with Mama Lewis than the same argumentative exchange and the same storming off in frustrated helplessness?
Amadi reminded her that no priest should attempt to guide her own kin, but this wasn’t a guiding! Just one cursed, useless conversation!
Why did she let herself believe that Mama Polly’s illness stands as reason enough to put aside history and ill-feeling in favour of even a momentary, fleeting sense of united family?
The small barn, the aisle wreathed in hay, at least feels comfortingly familiar. The rustle of straw under hoof and shoe, the dust motes floating in the air, the warm smells of chaff and animal—little different, at heart, to Sirenne’s stables. Suki draws a deep, shuddering breath and ties Bobby in the aisle, eyeing the third and fourth stalls—housing grain sacks, harness and tack, rope, buckets, spades, pitchforks, a barrow and other oddments. She can put her horse in one of the empty stalls and delay moving one stall’s collection into the other, of course, but why provoke further anger?
If she kicks a few sacks in the process, all the good.
A loud crunch has her jump and Bobby startle, a sound that takes her a moment to place: boots on gravel. Boots halting where the barn faces the hen house … where Suki once found a large knothole at the back of the pony’s stall. Boots halting where a woman who doesn’t trust her daughter not to mess up her barn may position herself to watch.
For a moment, her rage building, Suki considers discovering how much ruination she can cause before Mama Lewis cries out—and then she sighs, shaking her head. No. Even she knows that’s the quickest road to making everything worse!
She turns to her patient horse, counting backwards from a hundred, and sets to work.
In this, at least, Suki finds a comforting simplicity. Bobby obligingly served her, and she owes him service in return. Nothing matters but untacking her horse, picking his hooves, checking his legs and brushing his coat—and while her mood shows in her arm-aching enthusiasm for currying sweaty patches and itchy places, Bobby leans hard into her brush. She laughs as he rubs his cheek against her shoulder, arching his neck to guide her hand. “At least this is helping someone,” she murmurs, the air thick with chestnut hair. “Yes?”
Horses speak a language of movement and position, sparse on sound, expressive in emotion. They don’t conceal, burying truth between words and beneath smiles. What Bobby thinks of the human tendency to chatter, she can’t know, but with animals as her audience Suki can spill her thoughts without frustration or condemnation. The edges of another’s feelings and opinions don’t sharpen her words and send a conversation reeling from expression to argument. She can…
Here, to her horse, she can talk.
“I don’t know,” she says, giving Bobby a final pat before turning to her waiting sacks, “if gods exist. I don’t care if people believe. Gods aren’t why I do this. It’s just that this religion comes closest to … not just permitting me to exist, but sheltering and celebrating me. Connecting me to other people, offering a home. It’s really priests discussing the best ways to serve our communities and then together doing that.” She grabs the top of a sack heavy with barley and drags it between stalls. “God or no god, it’s sacred to serve and be served in turn. And I am. One day, I hope, I’ll even trust in it!”
No retreating footsteps reach her ears—just her panting breaths and Bobby’s whuffling ones.
“Any culture offers rules, guidelines, for being the right kind of person. If you follow them, you get the support of your people. Even when the rules don’t fit you, even when you break yourself trying to follow them. Even when you feel like … like you’ve lost something you don’t understand and can’t recognise, but you always know that you’re lesser for it. That’s how I felt, living here. Like I was being broken by degrees, and if I stayed, I’d be less. I had to find, for me, a better set of rules. And I did.”
After the second sack, Suki leans against the stall door to rest her shaking arms, glancing outside in the vain hope of spotting Mama Polly walking amidst the green grass and brown chickens.
“Which makes me wonder: did Mama break herself in following the rules? Does she believe them the road to happiness and safety because doing otherwise means admitting that they’re wrong for her, too? If she knows she can survive breaking herself to fit, why shouldn’t I do it, too? Are we the same in this, at heart? Or does she fit so well that just she can’t imagine anything else, that I can be different from her?”
Suki knows nothing of Mama Lewis’s motivations beyond shallow obviousness, nothing of her inner world beyond conformity’s worship. Only after a year spent with Amadi’s generous spilling of eir mind and soul did Suki recognise this absence as extraordinary. She didn’t imagine alternatives beyond colourless requests to obey and oblige, her childhood normal; never did her mothers release emotion from their wells of history. Never did she, before Amadi and Sirenne, see feeling expressed alongside the willingness to share, contextualise and reciprocate.
Her mothers, too, remind Suki of that same watercolour painting.
“I don’t want to just survive. I want to thrive. I want that for everyone else—it’s why I help people to walk their roads with meaning and purpose. And I wish … I wish, so much, I’d had that from Mama. Because it hurts, so much, to feel like she can only accept me if I’m someone not me.” Suki takes up another sack, glad that the difficulty of talking while dragging gives her time to collect her voice. “I wish she could have let me break the rules. I wish she could believe that good manners are less important than authenticity and kindness. I wish she could believe in the worth of what I am. It’s hard—I know, now, the pain in watching people I’ve cared for making choices I don’t understand. But it’s necessary and powerful, in that not-easy way of the best kind of sacred.”
She hears nothing but the shift of grain as she places the sack by the tack stall’s side wall.
“I think that’s why I’m a priest. Not because of some god, or because nobody cares if I don’t marry—but they don’t! Even the villagers I sleep with, when I want to, don’t expect it! No, I want to do for people, in my own way, what I wish my mothers could have done for me.”
Suki can’t guide her mother. She shouldn’t try.
She can, though, hope that Mama Lewis listens at the knothole while Suki lifts the lid on her own well of feeling. She can try to have a meaningful conversation with her mother, with decreased risk of criticism or attack, by pretending ignorance and addressing her horse.
If absurd works, Amadi began saying in response to Suki’s acceptance-seeking questions. Yes, it’s absurd. So what? If something functions in ways that don’t cause harm and allow for growth and safety, why mind?
“I’m happy,” she says, heaving her saddle and packs over the door of the spare stall. “I have my own room, a community, my kitchen. It isn’t always easy, being a priest, but … it’s important. I’m not despised or rejected. I’m allowed to be me, light and dark, sound and bruised. And I don’t want to be anything else.”
Bobby turns his head to give her a long, bored look.
“I know. I’ll get straw in the stall, and then I’ll feed you, I promise.”
She makes the delay up to him with a good handful of grain and a flake of hay, not realising how much she listens for movement outside the barn until a crow’s cry makes her jump. Listening for the listener? Why? She can’t be sure Mama Lewis remained for the entire speech. Even if she does take umbrage, Suki voiced her feelings without silencing. She spoke as the adult priest, not the defensive daughter. Isn’t that a victory?
She and Mama are the same, in truth: they’re both bitches.
Suki is no longer Suki Lewis, trapped within the bounds of an ancient denial. She found her calling, a life that shapes her without breaking her. She has belief, rebellion and purpose. She isn’t a woman so broken that her first greeting to her long-parted daughter must be a criticism of her clothing. She isn’t a woman so broken that she can’t work past her habit of edged retorts—or force herself to endure another’s cruelty.
She’s free to be absurd.
Suki of Sirenne will discover what happened to Mama Polly and survive whatever follows. She’ll then say a farewell denied the younger woman who fled Freehome in the middle of the night and return home—her true home. She isn’t here because Mama Lewis asked it. She’s here to close the book, to permit herself a need long gone unrecognised: celebration.
She’ll celebrate meeting and learning from Amadi, her work at Sirenne, her studies, her monastery, the unexpected and wonderful turns on her road. She’ll celebrate the truth that she won’t live and die in Freehome.
Suki of Sirenne, so far distant from Suki Lewis that Sirenne’s postmaster needed seven weeks to deliver her mothers’ letter, stows Bobby’s gear in an approximation of order, slings her saddlebags over her shoulders and, after a fortifying breath, strides from the barn towards the house.
Mama Lewis waits in her porch chair, her chin high. Her eyes, hard and defiant, foretell her lips’ spilling of yet another lecture, but she clenches bloodless knuckles so tightly that Suki winces.
“I only want you to love and be loved! I can’t tell you how I hurt I am that you’d think I don’t love you—”
Suki, purveyor of absurdity and obligate moments of rudeness, climbs the steps, opens the fly door and enters the kitchen in search of her other mother.