When Mara Hill’s magic results in her brother’s impossible, wondrous transition, of course Suki wants to know how she did it! What if Sirenne’s magic workers can help others find euphoria? What if this magic can heal Suki’s hands—or at least lessen her pain? But Mara, distrustful of priests after their failure in protecting Esher, won’t share her power.
A senior priest must bear responsibility, but Suki suspects her problems lie deeper than lack of oversight, and her reluctance to discuss her aromanticism with a woman who needs support only proves it. Would she have preserved Mara’s faith and Esher’s health if she hadn’t first avoided revealing herself to her aromantic kin? If she’d faced their expectations that she shoulder their pain and grief as well as her own?
Suki has lived her life by the Sojourner’s second precept, but how does she serve when she doesn’t have more to give—and never will?
Non-romantic love, to Suki, serves a similar role as the Sojourner or any other god: a fine concept in theory, but while she respects others’ need for a guiding framework, she can only nod vaguely at love’s existence.
Contains: A disabled, non-partnering allo-aro woman struggling with the expectations of her young, fledgling aromantic community; an autistic, aromantic priest reconsidering their expectations of their community’s leader; and an allo-aro woman in need of support as she struggles with her non-partnering, aro-ace brother’s illness.
Setting: Marchverse, a few days after What Makes Us Human.
Content Advisory: Please expect many references to or depictions of aro antagonism, allo-aro antagonism, amatonormativity, familial abuse, mental illness, suicidal ideation, death, gender dysphoria, chronic pain, ableism and ageism. This piece contains non-detailed, non-specific reference to a character’s past suicide attempts.
Length: 4, 409 words (part one of two).
Note: This is a sequel to my previous Suki stories as well as the Moll story What Makes Us Human. It also contains characters from The Sorcerous Compendium of Postmortem Query and references Mara’s adventures with her deceased Aunt Rosie.
They talk in a west-facing corner of the inner gardens, the sun edging towards the valley’s cradling ridgelines. Suki sits with careful stillness, resting her bony wrists and fingers in her lap. Her companion, Mara Hill, twirls a lock of dark hair around her finger with the ease of a woman unaware of her movements’ toll. Few people reach the ends of their lives untouched by disability, but Suki still aches to watch others take their youthful ability for granted … even if Mara’s restless fidgeting suggests anxiety as much as mind-type.
Suki was an artist once, albeit not the kind of craftswoman draped in the world’s renown. She built wonder from bare ingredients. She made the needed and the practical from scraps of thread and fabric. She took her hands’ ability to knead and shape for granted, revelling in others’ appreciation, until the pain built to a degree even she couldn’t deny. Given the option, she’ll always sit in her garden with her knitting needles or workbasket, making.
She can’t reconcile herself to hours spent halting her fingers and wrists in too-often-futile hope of preserving later use.
“Must I explain, one trans woman to another, why we want this?” Suki works to ease her voice, to sound possessed of patience and released of jealousy. “We … dabble, in spells and medicines, parlour tricks to lessen anguish, but this … it can be freedom. When wrought correctly.”
Now, Suki sees little sense in seeking such a transition: she’s had time to forge an accord with her body and gender. If said accord holds a touch of the defiant, rebellion nonetheless sheltered her through aching moments of feeling her body less hers than a chafing suit she’ll endure for this life. Gender, though, only began the war of Suki’s selfhood separating from her own blood and breath, and it long ago won second place on her list of impossible wishes.
What if Mara’s magic can do more than change a body’s sexual characteristics?
What if it can ease Suki’s hands, heal her knees, return to her the gift of unthinking movement?
Mara shifts her hands to twist the untied lace dangling from her bodice. She’s a handsome woman: tall and long-limbed, her cheekbones sharp enough to slice hard cheese. Full lips, wide skirts and a waist-length sable braid soften the flat planes of her face, shoulders and hips. Suki can’t call Mara beautiful, but she may have used the word “ethereal” if Mara didn’t also bare her haphazard humanity: hair falling out of its pins, scores of grass stains marking her petticoats, a waistcoat absent any matching buttons, a dress ten years out of style knotted up to bare clashing stockings and scuffed boots. Life with Mara, Suki suspects, is no small amount interesting, but one needn’t fear from her airs or pretentiousness.
This conversation, regardless, comes none the easier.
“I know you understand,” Suki says, attempting a beseeching gentleness. “How can’t you?”
“It’s a secret.” Mara stares at Suki with a distressingly direct gaze, as though hoping to emphasise her sincerity through eye contact. “Handed down from witch to witch. I’ve sworn oaths to the living and the dead. I can’t. And I won’t.”
Mara Hill is also a terrible liar.
“You insist this isn’t sorcery. It’s witchcraft—a type of magic that can be taught! Why, then, can’t you teach us? Can’t you imagine what we could do, if we could study and understand it?”
Just as Suki regrets such desperation-fuelled bluntness, flashes of brown, red and grey show through the eucalypts and fern-encrusted rockery dividing the outer garden from an interior courtyard. Only two other people in Sirenne stand tall enough to be seen over said wall of rocks, and neither looks towards her. Moll, their face set in their accustomed expressionlessness and their iron-grey hair scraped back in a braid, walks close by their companion: a man with Mara’s cheekbones, his gaze distant and his face cavernous. While health warms her sienna skin, even when moistened by anxiety and dappled sunshine, his sallow complexion provokes no kind adjectives.
Esher Hill is the gaunt, walking embodiment of the nightmare Sirenne’s priests struggle to dispel when discussing medicines and spells—a man who appears drugged and ensorcelled into a puppet-like lifelessness, a state absent all vitality.
His sister caused, provoked or necessitated most of it.
Like too many guests, Mara brought her brother to the monastery when absent solutions in her home village’s offerings of lay priests, physicians, magic workers and well-meaning family members—a last, desperate resort. Esher wasn’t happy or healthy, but he had muscle and energy enough that Suki decided his taciturnity somewhat intentional. He stopped to pet Sirenne’s horses; he allowed their cats to settle on his lap. He scowled when faced with chattering acolytes. He reacted.
Mara’s power stripped his bones of flesh and tissue in the quest to craft him an almost-cis body. New organs, somehow, grew; others withered and sloughed away like an unused cocoon. Such impossibility should be a miracle, but can one fairly call a tempest that devoured his body and hammered his mind miraculous?
What if, though, this transition becomes a goal identified and worked towards with desire, preparation and consent? What if a patient understands what lies ahead? Can one then cope with magic’s trauma, a difficult moment endured in travelling a chosen road? Or what if they narrow the scope to one change, one part of the body?
Will she then see a butterfly, bloodied but eager to take flight?
Will she then be able to live her last years still wielding her pastry brushes and knitting needles?
“It’s dangerous!” Mara follows Suki’s gaze towards the rockery, her lips pressed together in pale, thin lines. “Can’t you see that? Shouldn’t you?” Her husky voice sharpens like a blade on a grindstone. “And what makes you think I should trust you with it? Or would?”
Suki bites her lip while counting backwards from ten. Her tongue runs to tart even when voicing second and third thoughts, and she fears she offers little sympathy when she finds something worth speaking: “But less dangerous in better circumstances? If he knew, was prepared, agreed, expected…”
If a witch doesn’t work her magic behind the priests’ backs, but that’s less Mara’s fault than Sirenne’s.
The question remains: if a witch fears dysphoria’s ache the cause of her brother’s depression, why didn’t she offer this magical transition weeks or months earlier? Why didn’t she gain Esher’s prior agreement and approval? Why did Mara bother to take him to a monastery? That she wrought this after Sirenne’s failures dashes Suki’s hopes: Mara’s supposed witchcraft is sorcery, unpredictable and unreachable. Nothing more than a panicked, desperate deal made with demons, a grave power Sirenne can’t replicate … even should a priest be fortunate enough to make the same bargain with the same brace of demons.
If demons routinely offered such vast power, how many trans people wouldn’t sell their soul for a body suiting their nature?
“Prepare? After you made me—” Mara’s voice cracks like thick, shadowed frost under morning’s first footstep. “If there were anywhere else, if I thought … we wouldn’t be here!”
Suki shifts in her chair, her hands and feet aching as though a purple-black bruise engulfs her joints. Is it a wild, ridiculous joke that her body throbs as if beaten while showing no wound to draw sympathy? Why must a black eye or nasty scrape provoke sorrow while injuries or illnesses unable to heal garner, at best, a mute acceptance? Why do people following the Sojourner’s path lack comprehension in the second precept’s broadness? Why must a priest spend her day asking questions lacking comforting answers?
Because Amadi’s ideal became her god: question.
Mara’s desperation, too, deserves an answer.
“We failed,” Suki says, her own throat roughening. “We failed to serve Esher’s needs. A man who has too long had those needs unmet, and believes he has failed in even wishing his needs met, reacted to this lack in despair. There’s nothing irrational in that.” She wants to smile, because she can’t not know the rationality behind such a conclusion, but Mara won’t understand. She doesn’t know about Mama Lewis. “We went over our changes with you, for we can’t allow this to again happen. I ask you sincerely: are we now doing something inadequate? Are you unhappy with Moll or Thanh’s service? Within the limits of our resources and ability, what aren’t we doing that you think we should? How can we better help Esher? Help you?”
Suki didn’t assign Esher’s first priest. She didn’t speak or condone the words that gave him reason to lose the last shred of a trust abraded by too many authoritative people. She didn’t know why he needed consideration in the priest given to guide him; the unasked question wasn’t hers to speak. Ignorance, nonetheless, rings like an intimate, personal failure.
Not a failure Sirenne’s priests share as a collective whole.
A failure, terrible and tragic, in Suki.
Could she have tried harder to serve as an aromantic priest?
Mara purses her lips, her green skirt clenched in tight-knuckled hands. “He’s … always been. A little. But only in the last few years was he so distant, and I don’t think … he wasn’t bad like this until after the Thinning and Benjamin.”
Suki takes Mara’s non-answer as indication that, at least for the moment, she has no objection—and perhaps that’s a victory, but what good is winning when the war shouldn’t be fought? Suki sighs, shaking her head, as Moll and Esher move past the gap in the trees, vanishing behind canopy and granite outcrops. Only her garden, in its art-defying muddle of ferns, trees, mushrooms and bright-coloured orchids, remains—and while, ordinarily, such clashing shades appeal to her, today those greens and reds feel another mockery, a symbol and privilege undeserved.
Even when Moll gave her the opportunity to address her neglect, she took retreat in her brusque manner and authority, confident that a conscientious priest wouldn’t examine the shallowness of her answer. She offered reassurance, solved a problem, revealed herself in the most cursory of ways and fled with fears and feelings still buried within her aching bones.
If she considers god her ideal and Amadi’s ideal her god, why didn’t she?
“Benjamin is your partner, yes?” Suki shifts her left ankle, thinking even a circumlocutory attempt to build rapport better than another futile attempt at questioning. “May I ask what happened at the Thinning? You needn’t answer.”
Mara’s body softens, although she doesn’t ease her grip on the skirt. “Have you had … family, friends, come visiting? After they … pass?”
For all that belief in the Sojourner’s path embodies the human struggle to conceptualise, negotiate and accept death, hir followers still deal in euphemisms. Family come visiting. Bad like this. Suki, in the outspoken rebelliousness of a would-be priest, spent a year into her novitiate chanting “death, death, death” at her mirror before bed, just to prove that death isn’t a black-cloaked reaper summoned upon saying hir name.
Such boldness failed her, of course, when Mama Polly passed.
“There’s always spirits flickering about, but few speak.” Suki barks a hoarse laugh. “A man who desired me and told me that he’d never have broken his neck if I’d first wed him. Both my mothers. Mama Lewis talks too much.”
Such events aren’t for Suki as unusual an occurrence as they are for the non-necromantic laity, but the conversations between the returning dead and the priest who offered guidance on their paths through the life now history aren’t for outsiders. There’s always a few, often those who died in the last year and haven’t yet had their connections to this world stretch thin, who come back to speak rather than observe. Sometimes those spirits come burdened with regret and recrimination; sometimes they express gratitude or relief. Death, drawing closer with every breath, grants the living a night a year where one must look into hir shadow and fearlessly accept, even celebrate, hir company.
She’s none too fond of Mama Lewis’s bitter postmortem moaning, but a salt circle and poker at least puts paid to that nonsense.
Respecting the sacred covenant of life and death doesn’t mean tolerating abuse.
“Really?” Mara blinks, shaking her head. “She came to me, with other dead relatives and villagers—my Aunt Rosie. I think she knew I needed to talk to her. She told me that I don’t have to romantically love a girl to want or love a girl, and they told me all the ways they didn’t love, which made me feel that … I could talk to the woman I wanted. So I did.” A sweet warmth softens and curves her lips, but the speed with which Mara flattens them suggests she isn’t easy with smiling in current circumstances. “And we’re together, now. But Esh … he doesn’t want anyone, and that should be fine, but maybe … it wasn’t good for him to see me and Ben happy.”
She leans forwards, coughing, before wiping her palm on her skirt.
Suki clenches her hands, fighting to ease her expression before Mara catches her face. It rankles, to say the least, when someone happy in an intimate partnership—however non-romantic!—suggests that those without must be broken in their loneliness. How can she ignore the reflections of Mama Lewis, one shape of expected love or partnership replacing another in the same unyielding structures and assumptions? Mama Lewis cut and hewed the shape of Suki’s illnesses, not another’s possession of something she doesn’t want!
Non-romantic love, to Suki, serves a similar role as the Sojourner or any other god: a fine concept in theory, but while she respects others’ need for a guiding framework, she can only nod vaguely at love’s existence.
Anger, though, doesn’t explain the terror stiffening her body.
“Or after seeing you find a less-conventional form of the coupled happily-ever-after,” she says in a voice perilously close to “glacial”, “your kin and village increased their expectations that he should find the same?”
Mara stares, her lips parted as if in surprise or hurt. “I … Uncle Sascha would say that, I guess. So would the Fisher sisters.” She sighs, frowning. “I don’t know. Just that he got worse after Benjamin … right when I thought he’d get better, because Aunt Rosie said that we’re … real, human. Just a less-known ordinary. Even if we didn’t know the specific word before Moll said it.”
“Only your brother knows why,” Suki says in the mild, self-evident comment a guiding priest says to people having difficulty observing—or permitting themselves to observe—the truth before them. The mild, self-evident comment a priest, who doesn’t fear the direction of this conversation, may say to a guided guest. “So why bother yourself with if I didn’t non-romantically pair up with a girl, maybe he wouldn’t have tried to kill himself drivel? Can you go back in time to not pair up? No! Nor should you halt your life just in case it may be the reason!”
Mara’s half-raised eyebrows suggest that she doesn’t agree.
“Girl, the world tells you in so many ways that you shouldn’t non-romantically partner. After all that repetition, you’re inclined to find excuses to obey that! Keeping my brother from attempting suicide feels more reasonable to you than most puerile objections, but is this reasonable? Are you helping him by thinking this? Or are you obliging everyone who thinks you shouldn’t exist by undermining your partnership with misplaced guilt?”
She refrains from mentioning the insult in anyone’s assuming that depression must be provoked by the existence of someone else’s intimate partnership, as though such relationships are so fundamental one must sicken in witnessing another’s contentment! She refrains, unable to think of anything that doesn’t sound like an observation based in betraying knowledge. Shouldn’t they focus less, anyway, on Mara’s limited understanding of non-partnering people and more on the real issue at hand: her trying to craft another impossible?
Even if it means making herself the cause, Mara seems set on wishing together a world possessed of perfect assurance that her brother won’t again attempt suicide.
Sorcery is by far an easier art, but that’s no comforting truth.
Mara glances at Suki’s belt, as if in need of reassurance that she talks to a senior priest. “Are you, uh … well…”
“Am I what, girl? Don’t cluck!”
Mara swallows, stumbling over the word likely strange to her voice. “Aro … aromantic? Because you sound like…”
A word in a book, discovered by accident.
A word feared, weighted down by her obligation and pain.
A word unsaid, a man nearly dying of its absence.
“Aromantic and allosexual. I like men for bedding. I don’t like partnerships.” Suki speaks with the casualness that shaped her words when speaking to a distressed priest in a vegetable garden, words said now as if they’ll make up for their silent past. Words said devoid of her terror. “I have enough of one with myself.”
She waits, wondering if Mara will subject her to the young, abled trick of past tense, as though sexuality must be Suki’s history and not her present or future. Something accessible only to the hale and young, presuming her sense of another’s sexual attractiveness withers along with her body? Or will Mara grimace, disgusted by the notion of an elderly, disabled woman whose sexuality hasn’t “decently” become distant memory?
She waits for the accusation: why didn’t you say this before?
“So you understand … why it’s … hard, to live unknowing who you are and what you want, what the words are?” Mara’s brow furrows, her hesitant speech giving way to a spurting rush of feeling: “That’s what Aunt Rosie gave us that night, but it came so late. I lived for so long not knowing, without a word, without knowing it an option! That it had a name! And that hurts, even now I have what I didn’t know I wanted or could want. For so long, I didn’t know! Maybe … that’s it, for Esh, the hurting? Or part of it? How can’t it be…?”
How old is she? Twenty-five? Thirty at most? One needn’t own precision in telling another’s age to know that Mara’s adulthood, outside of accident or illness, stands years distant from death’s shadow. Suki draws a sharp breath, fighting to swallow the tart, quill-bristled question clogging her throat: And when do you think I found the word, girl?
Amadi gifted her the other-shape-of-normal permissiveness, but ey died unknowing of the word describing them both.
Ey died, leaving her alone in a world where she feels outdated and unwanted, where everyone sharing in the known power of the word aromantic can’t comprehend her pain but expects her to, immediately and easily, carry theirs.
Mara needs her pain acknowledged, to have someone confirm that possession of a happy non-romantic partnership can’t and shouldn’t erase ignorance’s lingering hurts. Someone who acknowledges that such bruises are long in the fading but one can still build a life worth living. Someone who reflects understanding and the vital, powerful sense of aromantic siblinghood. Someone who can give what she needs and deserves.
Why must Suki provide it? Why not Moll? Why not anyone else?
“Yes.” She swallows, shifting her throbbing hands, fighting to keep the growl from claiming her voice. Another failure! “We all feel the … betrayal, the years lost to ignorance. Why didn’t I know? You’ll have times of hurting, of struggling, of wondering what could have been if your family knew, your friends, your neighbours. When something isn’t yet recognised or accepted, despite being extant and common … pain, for those of us ahead of that coming, isn’t optional. You aren’t alone in that.”
Suki isn’t gentle. Increased social permissiveness towards the crotchety manner discouraged in children and younger adults stands as one of age’s rare benefits. Mama Polly joked that Suki was set to be a grandmother while still a maiden, but Mama Lewis—curse her long-dead soul—didn’t laugh. Even after half a century gone, Suki can still recite her clipped lectures, delivered in the hope that decreased acidity and increased sweetness will help her daughter find the happiness packaged in a loving, romantic partnership.
Mama Lewis’s shade, returning for her once-yearly lecture, still hopes that her now-elderly daughter will soften enough to allow love into her heart.
It should amuse Suki that such gentleness is now demanded whenever she dares reveal herself as aromantic.
Mara nods, her lips pressed together, her jaw tight, her glistening eyes angled towards her lap.
“It could be part of your brother’s feelings. It could be something else. But this second-guessing of his motivations doesn’t help you or him!” Suki changes the subject for Mara’s sake: for a woman fighting to keep from breaking down before a near-stranger. “Where does this get you but exhaustion? You’re only going to chase your guesses around and around until you’re a dog barking at a rat behind a grate—only to finally spot a different rat gnawing on his brain, realise you’ve been barking at this one for no reason, and there’s actually a score of invisible rats feasting on his poor, bloody brain. Does this help you see those invisible rats? Does this barking help your health, girl?”
She absolutely, assuredly isn’t changing the subject because Suki fears the explosion of her own anger and hurt while discussing aromanticism.
Question. How can she?
Mara’s eyes meet Suki’s face in the bulging stare had by someone imagining rodents chewing on grey matter. “R—rats?”
“Chewing brain rats. You want pretty metaphors for a bloody illness? Don’t talk to a priest, then. Pretty metaphors leave people telling themselves depression isn’t illness, just something that can be shouted, shamed or pressured into abeyance. I don’t hold for that.” Suki sighs and attempts to ease Mara’s shock, hating her bluntness’ sharp, gleaming edges. Is she trying to hurt Mara, wounds delivered in return for those unintentionally given? “I know you want to help your brother. You’ll do more for him by asking what he needs, and listening to what he tells you even if it’s ‘nothing’, instead of chasing every rat in the hope they’re the ones eating him. There’s too many rats, girl! When he’s able to cope with your asking, ask. Leave handling the rats to us—because that’s what we’ll teach him.”
If only they’d thought to ensure Mara realised this before she attempted to bludgeon the rat labelled “dysphoria”, but who imagined a village witch owning such power or ability?
Mara nods: perhaps accepting such advice, perhaps planning to avoid future commentary on what she thinks provoked her brother’s attempt. Her silence is, though, more honest than immediate agreement. Better that than false approval or out-of-hand rejection, especially when she hasn’t agreed to a guiding relationship between priest and guest. Especially when Suki has already stepped further over that line than is wise for a priest struggling with herself! Anyway, hasn’t she gleaned enough to make a solid guess—that Mara sold her soul to purchase Esher’s transition? What more need they discuss?
She isn’t a powerful witch keeping her magic a solemn, oath-bound secret.
She’s a frightened sister doing everything she can to hold her brother into life.
Is that another rat set to gnaw on Esher’s brain? Is that, as much as distrust or fear of priestly reaction to sorcery, reason for her denial? Does she seek to keep this secret from Esher and the priests involved in his care to avoid making yet another rat? Does Moll realise this?
Is Mara all that different from Suki herself?
“I’m sorry that I can’t help you.” Mara stands and bows in the abrupt, jerking movements of a woman looking to leave before the conversation leads them anywhere uncomfortable—and Suki feels unreasonably relieved. “Thank you for your advice—and wisdom.” She hesitates, leaving Suki certain that “wisdom” is nothing more than politeness. “I’m glad, I suppose, there’s more people like us here. Maybe … maybe that will help Esh, if things go better.”
“If you think a priest’s guidance may be useful for your own sake,” she says, falling back on well-worn script in the surety that her own words are far too confronting, “please know that our service extends to all. And I hope, one day, aromantics are so ordinary there’s no need to comment.”
Mild, facile, trite.
Her hands throb, and Suki fights to unclench them.
Mara’s face shutters. “You’ve more than enough work with Esh.”
She bows again and, in a frenetic, long-paced stride best described as “hurrying”, heads down the garden path towards the guest quarters.
Can she blame Mara for not trusting her when Suki has none to give?
She sighs and stares at her orchids, at the stone rising behind the tangle of shrub and ivy, at the blue-tinged mushrooms threatening to take over the lawn, at the green grass beneath her chair and the cloudless sky overhead. She stares at the rocks and leaves of her sanctuary, thinking about Mara, thinking about Mamas Lewis and Polly, thinking about the conversation with Moll in the vegetable garden, thinking about words unsaid and feelings concealed … but as the sun ebbs lower, she finds no course of action but the obvious.
Why has she, for so long, chosen avoidance over service? Why has she refused to face her pain, even while knowing the impact her absence has on others? If she preaches the sacred power in guiding another to a better road, why does she refuse another’s gift of the same? Will she leave this world as Mara is now? Or will she trust her own kin, her own ideals—the only god worth her wholehearted belief?
“Aziz!” Suki waves a hand at the acolyte reading on the lawn just out of non-shouting earshot. “Tell Moll that I’d like them to attend me here at their earliest convenience. Please have the kitchen arrange sweets for both of us and my afternoon tea.” She pauses, considering, as Aziz scrambles upright and straightens hir brown robe. “My shawl. And ask Thanh for an additional dose of my pain medicine. Thank you.”
If Moll is good enough for Esher Hill, they ought to be good enough for Suki of Sirenne.
Keep reading: Those With More, Part Two.