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 conquer dysphoria? 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?
Some scars are long years in the fading, if at all.
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 as well as Suki’s use of the word “bitch” to describe herself (now in a more reclaiming way). This section includes characters embracing and touching.
Length: 4, 691 words (part two 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.
She isn’t surprised when Moll strides, their braid and girdle book swinging with each step, down the path to her garden. Sirenne rarely leaves its rules unsaid, an admirable quality to Suki’s way of thinking, but one needn’t long elaborate to impart the expectation that junior priests arrive promptly when summoned. Moll, despite the lifetime of alienation that leads to questioning rules and a habit of interaction best described as “restrained”, hasn’t dawdled upon hearing her request. A problem, that.
She understands, though, in the way of a woman once a girl who couldn’t have understood at all.
Obedience to conformity isn’t something she feels in the heart; Suki responds to being haltered with sharp words and loud arguments. Amadi, knowing this, kept her with em for a year before taking her to Sirenne, a year of learning to accept reasonable restrictions before facing the greater challenge of an acolyte’s service. That bitter, aching, defiant Suki would have scorned Moll’s flushed face and hurried pace, not seeing that she reacted to the same set of weighty, dehumanising beliefs and demands.
Submission and rebellion are just two sides of the same coin.
She doesn’t approve, but she understands.
“Don’t you even think about it,” she says, gleefully irascible, as Moll opens their mouth. “No clucking allowed. Sit down. The food’s safe, but it’s been half an hour. The tea’s probably cold.”
Moll nods and settles themself on Mara’s recently-vacated bench, the tea tray resting between them and Suki’s chair. As always, they move slowly, carefully, cautiously—like a wolfhound sniffing a newborn kitten or a man allowing a butterfly to alight on his finger. Like a tall, broad, boulder-shaped priest attempting to avoid threatening or scaring, however inadvertently, those around them. Like a puppy lying on its back, belly bared and paws tucked under its chin, its defencelessness a performance made before all would-be predators.
I won’t hurt you, so don’t hurt me.
They look more like a fig tree towering over the world’s seedlings than a puppy, but while a fig possesses an ancient, confident majesty in its quest to subsume another life in its great roots, Moll is … Moll. Shy, awkward, hesitant, uncertain. Rarely does she see them widen their arms or roll their hips, as if forever working to make their immense body appear smaller, softer, lighter. Just as a fig, for all its grandeur, lies vulnerable to any woman wielding an axe, Moll lies vulnerable to the wounds wrought by tongue, expression and gesture.
She wants to, simultaneously, swathe that nervous puppy in a warm blanket while taking a sharp blade to that fig’s trunk and daring Moll to defend themself.
Some scars are long years in the fading, if at all.
“Do you … mind, if I heat the tea?”
“Clucking,” she says, fighting to bite back her impatience. She doesn’t want to be the kind of old woman who moans about the young’s blathering, but sometimes they make her silence difficult! “If I objected, couldn’t you cool it down? Or tell me to pour a cup and let time have its way? I’d tell me, personally, to stick my head where the sun never shines. Try, if you want.”
Moll’s deep-set brown eyes put her in mind of shadowed pools—their fathomless serenity now disturbed by a crotchety priest’s thrown rock. Wordlessly, they pour a small amount of tea into a saucer before resting one hand on the teapot’s handle. The other guides a finger to the saucer, dampens a fingertip and traces, with careful delicacy, evaporating glyphs atop the tan glaze.
Many magicians speak loudly or write in great looping script, their magic become another performance of wordplay and artistry—as if, Suki always thinks, they find adoration for their art more useful than magic itself. Moll works in gestures and murmurs, collected and subtle. Everything must be reduced, depressed and lessened for safety, and she sighs, for even she recognises that they’re no casual magician. Why shouldn’t the world outside a small, backcountry monastery welcome or accommodate such ability?
Why shouldn’t Freehome welcome Suki’s free, unrestrained, honest self?
Such pondering, when she knows the answers to both questions, provides only one thing: delay.
“How old were you,” she asks, “when you learnt the word for your aromanticism?”
A slight frown, more the suggestion of expression than the actuality, shifts Moll’s brow. “I know exactly,” they say in their slow, deep voice, “because I learnt five weeks and two days after my acceptance as acolyte.” They purse their lips, studying the movement of their finger across the teapot. When a breath of steam issues from the spout, they pull back their hand. “I knew what I was since childhood, but knowing that I am loveless isn’t the same as a more … academic term. Loveless … people have other ideas about what that means.”
She always knew whom and what she was, clinging to a truth so obvious part of Suki still finds it absurd that Mama Lewis persisted in her stubborn obliviousness. Knowing, though, isn’t recognition, isn’t identification and permission; knowing isn’t the certain categorisation of the self as a different, acknowledged, communicable manner of ordinary.
Knowing isn’t pride.
“When do you think I found the word?”
Moll shakes their head, pouring now-steaming tea into a clay mug, the glaze chipped about the rim from years of use, the handle too small to fit all of Moll’s fingers. Their expression shows not the slightest hint of curiosity towards her questions. “I wouldn’t begin to guess, sir.”
Given Moll’s newness to the red, they can easily rough-reckon the numbers, so she answers as they did. “One and a half years before you, and leave off the ‘sir’! What are we, Astreuch?” Suki draws a shaking breath, her voice undeservedly sharp, but how can she fight both her acid tongue and the awful surge of hurt? How can she fight both her acid tongue and a nebulous tension that only fuels and strengthens her aching joints? “I was accepted, in a ‘some people don’t like relationships’ way. My mentor, Amadi, was like us. But the word? I didn’t know words until a cluster of young priests brought books from Khaloun. I found it, unexpectedly, while reading. So I made it my life’s work to have, here, our library.” She pauses, rueful. “Or the rest of my life’s work, since…”
Moll has given only patient, considered answers. Moll hasn’t asked questions coated in that dread mingling of need, hope and dismissal. Moll has done nothing to deserve her mood beyond asking one question, in the vegetable garden, that they had and have every right to voice.
Anticipatory fear and aching memory, poisonously entwined, have ever raised her hackles.
Suki counts backwards from ten, breathing long and slow, before realising that the Stormcoast’s culture of tiptoeing around advancing age—one daren’t observe that another approaches a state of “elderly” or “ancient”—has left Moll dwelling in a stone-faced, finger-entwining, staring-at-the-ferns silence.
“Which relative told you off as a child for calling another relative ‘old’?” she asks, grinning. “You think I don’t know I’m over the bloody hill and rolling down the other side? Yes, it’s the rest of my life’s work, because most of my life happened beforehand! Why pretend otherwise?”
“Many.” Moll rolls their shoulders back, softening. “How old were you?”
“Seventy-nine.” Suki silently applauds them for avoiding the tired “may I ask how old were you” approach and leaves the rest of the reckoning to Moll, carefully shifting her hands. Too often, these days, she earns nothing for her restful efforts but more time yearning for the work around which she has anchored her life. “Sometimes I feel like I was alive when the Sojourner supposedly lead hir band of survivors from the Change-ravaged North. Sometimes the world feels impossibly different, from then to now. Mostly, I feel the same as I always was, and the world’s less different than people think, but people treat me like a … a relic. Fancy attempting to educate me about theories I promoted because the old can’t understand the new!” She sighs. “Pour me a cup of plain tea, please, and put a pill on the saucer. The rats are gnawing today. Bloody rats.”
If her pain becomes unbearable, she’ll ask Thanh for hir set of nerve-blocking spells. She won’t be able to move or feel much of her body, but since she’s already remaining still, the real difference lies in consideration for Thanh. Ze’s had enough on hir metaphorical plate over the last week without Suki’s adding to hir work—and she hates to call on hir when she unnecessarily provoked at least half the throb in her hands, knees and ankles. Thanh has never made her feel as though she shouldn’t, but she does nonetheless.
She’s learnt the hard way how much her mood, and her guilt over wishing for relief, stokes and banks her pain.
Moll sets down their mug and pours another. “Can I do anything for you?”
Suki laughs. “I don’t suppose there’s the slightest chance you’ve figured out Thanh’s nerve blockers?”
They shake their head with speed enough that she guesses this a source of some frustration. “I don’t know how! There’s so much grafting onto nerve points, and in trying to describe it all and then shell … I make too many mistakes in the spell compression. It isn’t something in which you want mistakes.” They stop, breathing out long and slow. “I’m sorry, s—I’m sorry.”
Suki considers asking why, since she can’t expect a former quartermaster to reveal mastery of an art for which Thanh spent years studying at Eastern universities, but isn’t all this another distraction? “Don’t be. Thank you. Can you put the tray, just the cup and saucer, on my lap?”
Moll shifts the teapot and plate of corn muffins onto the bench before, as carefully as if handling fragile porcelain, arranging the rest of the tray on Suki’s lap. “Do you want to eat?”
“No.” Once, she could clasp a cup without provoking or worsening the pulling, throbbing pain in her wrist and fingers. So simple a thing to hold a cup, to drink, to return it to her tray! The tea’s heat doesn’t ease her pain, but the warm, tingling sensation distracts her somewhat, so she cradles the cup in both hands before raising them to her face. Now, at least, she needn’t waste her time in hope. As much as she yearns for Mara’s unlooked-for shape of witchcraft, there’s no reason to think her magic anything but sorcery, distant and unattainable. So be it.
She has blessings to count: a home, acolytes to help her wash and dress, purpose.
The bitter pill sticks to her tongue before she swallows it down.
“I can imagine,” Moll says, settling themself back onto the bench, “but in that way of theory. I can’t know, in the heart, the longest rhythms of time unknowing or half-knowing, given all denied us because we lack comprehension’s authority and…” They trail off, taking up their mug and, likely unconsciously, mirroring the position of her hands. “Place. That sense of place in time, in space, in community, in family, that … existential assuredness. Place. I know separation, distance, but I won’t pretend that I know that deeper shape.”
That Moll thinks their service should encompass only the safety of the vegetable garden is both tragedy and metaphor, but their still face suggests they don’t realise the contradictory echo of old words behind the new.
Mara wanted her kindred’s acknowledgement of her pain, someone to help her shoulder the weight of her agony in the validation and sympathy offered only by one who understands. Was Suki wrong to think, for so long, that she can’t risk seeking comfort? Does Moll’s rare consideration, offered unprompted no less, betoken safety enough for her to try?
“Do you have place, now?”
Moll cocks their head to the side, tapping one finger against the mug’s brown handle.
“I don’t know that I will ever have that … neat, puzzle-piece sense of fitting into any time or space shared with others. Just autism alone, just aromanticism alone, just genderlessness alone … possibly. But they can’t stand alone, even if others want them to.” Moll exhales, hissing their breath over their lips in the loud, habitual easing of a priest performing and, through performance, encouraging the behaviour. “Sometimes … I want, so much, the ease of that fit, the confidence of an unquestioned place. And always … not, never, at that price.”
It shames her that, for all she has long held Moll at arm’s length, they are so willing to share.
“Burn the whole damn puzzle,” Suki says through a terrible, crooked grin.
Moll nods, a slight frown creasing their lips.
Do they realise? The shock of their first conversation in the vegetable garden, followed by an induction into the events surrounding the Hill siblings, may have seen them miss or put aside the obvious, for all that they touched upon it in their question of her. Moll owns too much perception to remain in acceptance of the thick paint covering the wallpaper beneath, and priests must do just that: question.
No thought or word can be worth anything if crumpling under curious, inquisitive challenge, so the question remains: have they the courage to ask?
“Do you know,” she says in a would-be conversational voice, “that the best thing about being a priest is that you can, amongst other priests, speak your mind? The trick lies in only having something worth speaking. Try it.”
With the speed and presence of a glacier, Moll turns their head to look Suki in the eyes. Their brow sits low and heavy, their controlled voice too tense for indifference: “What is this, then?”
Suki shakes her head. “No, try again.”
Moll’s lips shift, as if they mean to mouth a word before deciding otherwise. “Do you want honesty?”
“Your own mind will tear you apart if you say anything less, so why should I expect otherwise?”
A slight crease of Moll’s brow may suggest amusement—or consternation. Both, perhaps. “You’re discussing,” they say with painful slowness, “aro—” They hold up a hand, stopping her from remarking on their woeful statement of the obvious, and Suki, despite her anxiety-fuelled throbbing, works to hide a smile. “When you’ve had five years to start a conversation, why now?”
Their breath hisses over lips and teeth, one hand sketching lines on the meat of their robe-covered thigh.
Suki nods her encouragement.
“I did think that if this were well-known, I’d have heard. Someone would have said so in explaining to me? I also thought that your answer to my question … undermined your sense of the importance that we guide our own, especially now.”
“Do you feel that with Esher Hill?” Suki asks, wondering if they’ll dare put damning thought to voice. “Importance?”
“Yes.” Moll shifts the girdle book and the bunched-up length of brown belt fastening said book to their waist. Their robe spills over thighs and knees, leaving ankles and shoulders bared; unlike Suki, they don’t appear the least bit cold. “He doesn’t trust me, but I think seeing himself reflected in that tangle of sharedness does more to help him survive than anything else. It matters.” They draw a breath, their voice firming and harshening: “So why do you talk sharedness now?”
Good! Only pain and the fear that Moll will take a somewhat-deserved offence keeps her from clapping. If she spends her remaining months or years helping Moll craft a more intentional relationship to obedience, even the Sojourner must reckon this time well served.
Easier to think about that than her own fear of an unvoiced answer.
Easier to frame this as a lesson or a guiding, her conversation possessed of another’s purpose.
Easier to think of anything but guilt and the damning thoughts an old woman must dare speak.
“Why do you?” Moll sips from their mug, their body angled towards her, their soft tone less a question than a prompting. “Isn’t that it?”
Only then does Suki realise that she embodies her own lingering, encloaking silence.
Her eyes rest, fleeing Moll, on the fern-encrusted garden wall and its uneven rows of red and yellow orchids. Her plants, fronds and leaves stirred into bobbing by the evening breeze, appear peaceful and fearless, but even allowing for flora’s unknowable sentience, that can’t be true. What stops a priest from consigning her flowers to the compost heap? A swarm of thrip from devouring the vegetable garden? Ferns, too, live their lives at the whims of the weather, the season, the denizens of the land upon which they take root. Plants grow, flourish, sicken, die. Peaceful?
What is peace but illusion: the hope of a perfect shelter from nature’s whims, ways and hurts?
“It goes the same way,” she says, now staring at her lawn and its mushrooms, those glistening fruits of the fungus conquering the soil beneath. “You learn something you didn’t know existed: the word. Once you find it fits, you feel the betrayal, the ache of once not knowing something fundamental, the deep cuts left by ignorance. You want sympathy, reassurance and validation to heal, and where are they when most don’t understand?”
Deep creases form across Moll’s brow as they thread their fingers together. “Yes. Esher needs it from me.” They hesitate, lips parted. “He needs it. So does Mara.”
“You can say it,” Suki murmurs, wondering the cost of standing, stepping onto the lawn and pulling the closest mushroom … with her back, conveniently, facing the priest beside her. Perhaps she and Moll aren’t so dissimilar if she wants to turn her hurt to fighting fungi. Perhaps this only crosses a mind looking to find a replacement for her knitting. “Please.”
“And I needed it from you.”
They may be referring to that first vegetable garden conversation. They may be referring to the years that passed between Moll’s learning the word “aromantic” as a descriptor and discovering that another priest is also aromantic. Both are truth.
“Nobody but Amadi had anything close.” Suki yawns in the first touch of medicine’s giddiness. Pity, as always, that she feels the effect in her head long before her joints. “Given nameless, remaining nameless with eir last breath.”
Only the stirring of hair and robe by breeze and breath mars Moll’s quiet stillness.
“Those with more,” she says bitterly, “serve to guide those with less. How doesn’t aromanticism apply? But we know the other side of its truth: a priest must have more to serve. More knowledge, more support, more sense of place, more safety, more community. A priest offers sympathy, provides reassurance, validates feeling, illuminates direction. A priest does what the world so often can’t in telling the different that we aren’t wrong to exist as we are.”
Mama Lewis wanted Suki to be safe, happy, loved. Mama Lewis never valued the daughter she had over the image of the daughter she thought herself entitled to have.
The part of Suki still yearning for the promise of her mother’s love can’t surrender one tainted, maggot-ridden idea: that a concept bearing an academic-sounding, official name must have made a difference.
Or will she still exist in this same circumstance, a trailblazer struggling with the full and challenging consequences of being this path’s guide?
“You think that I’ve known our word for years. You think that age means my hurt no longer throbs and I will carry your pain. You think I have more.” She presses her lips together, fearing the tears threatening to burst their dam. No, Suki takes pride in being the human equivalent of a splinter under a fingernail! She doesn’t weep. She rebels. “I have more knowledge only! You’ve … thirty, forty, fifty years of knowing ahead. You won’t find the word when you’re at death’s doorstep. You won’t bear the pain of a word unknown for eight decades. Your guide came delayed, but your guide still came!”
Suki learnt her words from books, not other priests. Moll had Gennifer, who’d learnt of aromanticism from her and affirmed in person the name of their identity and human worth. Moll, now, has Suki, even if five years later than right or deserved. Mara and Esher Hill have the wonder of identified validation provided by other aromantics, but Suki lived in a time when even the best affirmation went unnamed.
She tried openness for a year. She tried talking, despite such guiding never being her strongest art, to those guests who showed signs of aromanticism. She tried to find and connect with her own.
Easier, so much easier, to withdraw, to leave nurturing the younger aromantic starting their novitiate to other priests, to trust that Moll’s future will achieve what hers can’t.
Easier, so much easier, to avoid the young’s self-involved cruelty in relegating her only to their mentorship: the provider of their needed validation and support, the priest with more.
Easier, so much easier, to avoid speaking of her named identity with her aromantic kin … until a man almost died in part because of how he took a priest’s careless words, a situation that may not have existed if everyone knew “aromantic” described her and understood its context. Her failure, her cowardice, her unwillingness to build aromanticism more obviously into all her priests’ knowledge and service. Her inability to survive the bruises dealt her by others in pain. Her rebellion offering no direction or answer.
“You want me to strengthen you, shore you, shelter you. I can’t. I can’t when even thinking of sharing your agony reminds me of mine. I can’t when listening to you…” She sucks in a harsh, shaking breath, her throat tightening like a python’s jaws around a struggling rat. “I don’t have more. I’ll never have more. But acknowledging that isn’t enough!”
No lie slipped from her lips when she spoke to Moll in the vegetable garden, carefully dealing in careless and shallow words: how can a priest best guide someone when that guiding means taking further injury to damaged flesh? How can she serve their guests and her belief when she fights to keep back her screams, when pain and defensiveness sharpen her words to cruelty?
How much did the ostensible Sojourner struggle in leading hir collection of rent and ruined survivors along such a frightening, untrodden road?
She wishes herself able enough to march into the kitchen, grab a stack of the cracked plates she kept aside for such purposes and find a private courtyard where she can hurl them at a particularly offensive wall.
“I’m sorry,” she rasps, “because you needed. Because what happened to Esher wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t retreated. I didn’t question. I didn’t try to find an answer. I used the precept as a shield; I failed it. I’m sorry, I—”
She doesn’t realise she’s weeping until Moll slides towards her, closes their warm hand about her bony shoulders and pulls her into their chest, her tears soaking their red linen robe. They don’t speak. They don’t do anything but sit, awkwardly leaned over the arm of her chair, and hold her like a fresh-hatched chick in a pair of sheltering hands.
Guiding priests don’t, by custom, embrace their guests.
A lifetime’s grief spills from her eyes, stinging creased, dry cheeks. Not until the evening’s chill increases to something unignorable does Suki find again her composure. She sniffs, draws a shaking breath and speaks in her ever-readily barbed tongue: “Ten years ago, before your novitiate, I’d have asked if you were interested in bedding. Or even just sleeping, because you’re better than a dog and a hot brick for keeping an old woman toasty.”
Moll sits upright, only a strained shift of shoulder suggesting any stiffness or discomfort. Their wet eyes glisten even in the dim light, an odd contrast to their twisted lips and crumpled chin—and then a noise between a hoarse laugh and a snort explodes above the breeze’s whisper. “Don’t distract!”
They sound like Suki does when objecting to the young’s woeful blathering.
She straightens, wiping her face on a corner of her shawl before smiling in pride. “Yes. I…”
“Thank you for trusting me enough to share.” They’re priestly words, taken right from the instruction manual, but Moll’s following sentences aren’t: “You said my guide came delayed, but she came, she showed herself when needed, she served. She’s here. I don’t know … how people reacted, what was asked, all of what you feel, how you bear the weight. I want to know. Your guide came delayed, so delayed … but they’re here. Even at the last.”
Emotion cracks and shreds her voice: “I’d rather not cry again, thank you very much.”
Moll doesn’t dilute their blank stare with speech or gesture.
“What path, then?” she croaks—tired, giddy, shivering, relieved.
Part of her, the wary woman once a distrustful girl, feels it ludicrous that Moll, so junior a priest, can answer something she can’t. The girl does them no justice: Moll hasn’t asked her to carry their pain. They’ve shared only at her prompting. They’ve treated her with a friend’s warmth and courtesy. If she holds no faith in their sacred service, is there anything left of Suki but damaged bones in an aching body? Isn’t this the same old difficulty: a woman fighting herself to trust another person, simultaneously needing and fearing?
Moll rests a hand on the arm of her chair, fingers half curled in invitation.
Suki nods and rests her stiff hand in their soft one.
“Someday,” they say slowly, “as how it seems incredulous to question one eschewing gender, we will be history. My school, years ago, taught that: the tears and blood spent to make a world where I can shrug at gender. Not just as a past to avoid repeating, but as … respect for the pain that birthed the now.”
They motion with their other hand, fingers curled inwards—the mug and teapot sitting, long abandoned, on the bench.
Suki yawns, presses her trembling lips together and waits.
“We need books of names and definitions, and we need books of stories. Our futures and hopes written on the page. Stories of the past that we’re hoping become … incredulous. We need the stories of those who wept. We can’t forget.” They turn to glance at Suki before speaking in a voice marred by quivering: “May I write down your story? So I can understand—so we can understand, all those who come after?”
They won’t offer power. They can’t violently remake a world so wrought against her. They don’t provide resolution to the ache felt by a woman struggling with the community who need her to help them bear and understand theirs. They haven’t a solution.
They offer direction, one balancing their hopes for the future with the harms of the present. A direction that doesn’t make her feel like a relic to be cast aside but a paving stone at the road’s beginning, one small part of ensuring the steady, continuing passing of feet and wheels.
Moll’s suggestion is why she believes in the concept of the Sojourner, even though she can’t make herself ascribe to certainty in god.
“I don’t mean to be impudent—”
“Never cluck when you’re doing a bitchy old woman a kindness.” Suki draws a shaking breath of her own. “I’d … like that. Very much. Thank you.”
At first, she thinks Moll’s expression—a slight curve of lips, only a smile by comparison—speaks more of relief than happiness. No. Don’t they also straddle a complex and confused struggle to build their place? Don’t they also feel the sacred power in their service? Aren’t they also in need of friendship?
“May I ask—” Moll stops themself, raising a palm. “Why did you talk to me, at the beginning, as though guiding a priest? Why didn’t you talk about this straight out?”
Suki grins at both the correction and the question. “I’m the Guide. What else do you think I’m going to do?”