(In Which Harper Can’t Avoid Nevo’s Questions)
“Be sensible,” Mama says, “or be dead.”
Harper Mitzin Seili is many things: fashionable, witty, queer. Cautious … not so much. Nonetheless, life as a tavern server on the working side of Ihrne’s dividing wall demands preparation and limitation. He obeys the rules that matter. He remembers what Mama sacrificed for his chance to live as a man. Besides: the end-of-war Proclamations, issued in the name of Ihrne’s trans crown prince, promise a new, better world. A world in which safety doesn’t require his rejecting connection, intimacy and that shifting, nebulous thing called “attraction”.
But when the Traditionalists take up violence in protest of noble-issued laws, Harper’s risky ventures and glib tongue don’t just fail to steer him out of trouble: they destroy the life he and Mama spent two years building. He can stay and suffer at the hands of his neighbours … or begin anew in another place, under another name. A place where he must now submit to every restriction Mama, in her fears for him, deems “safe” and “sensible”.
A third way exists for Harper, if only he dares break Mama’s foremost rule … and several of his own.
Why must he exchange one set of expectations for another? Why can’t he pick what suits him from a wealth of possibilities and craft a masculinity that’s uniquely Harper?
Contains: An abrosexual, abroromantic trans man who can’t bring himself to perform restrictive masculinity but clings to the illusion of fine amid deepest hell; a gay, quoiromantic cis man struggling to help a liar he loves in a not-a-crush way; and a world in which cishets’ violence and hatred twist even queer affection into a weapon harming their own.
Content Advisory: References to classism; references to misogyny, cissexism, heterosexism and queer antagonism; casual references to sex and sexual attraction; casual references to romance, kissing and dating; references to self-harm, trauma, and emotionally unhealthy/abusive relationships; frequent references to and descriptions of blood, injury, violence, death, necromancy and decomposition. This story depicts queer-antagonistic slurs, attacks, threats and acts of violence made against the protagonist by cisgender heterosexuals that go ignored by witnesses and police. It also depicts later acts of violence against said attackers made by the protagonist.
Length: 4, 161 words.
Note (arachnophobia advisory): A redback is an Australian venomous spider: a black widow with a stripe of red on its back and underside. They’re commonly found in sheds, woodpiles and other dry crevices conveniently created by humans–even in large cities. (I’ve had them take up residence in pet cages; splinters aren’t the main reason why we wear gloves in the woodshed.) They’re known, in Australian settler folklore, for inhabiting outhouses! Only casual, cursory spider mentions, however, take place in this chapter.
Note (blood/wound advisory): This chapter also focuses on wound care/stitching and depicts this in a way (and setting) that isn’t safe, sanitary, advisable … or accurate to the methods used by a medical professional.
The old watchtower rises three levels above the parapet, shrouded by a conical slate roof, grey-green lichen and a passionate encroachment of ivy. Nevo found the key in a box of books and ephemera his employer purchased for resale and put it aside for later cataloguing. Harper, spending rare idleness in teasing an easily-flustered shopboy and skim-reading unaffordable books, couldn’t fail to recognise the wing-shaped bow, not after nineteen years spent in service to the daughter of Lord-General Egau ein Paraen, current Wallmaster of Ihrne.
A man famed for the omnipresent—and irritating—rattle of his ancient keys.
Not that Harper revealed his past when crafting a story that appeared drawn from history lessons and a happenstance discovery of the right books. Nevo didn’t question his knowledge, even when they needed a further six months to discover which of Highwall’s abandoned towers and gates that weighty key opened—forging, all the while, something Harper considers friendship.
Or as close to it as possible, given the loose scree upon which the foundations stand.
The first and second above-wall storeys are an uninhabitable mess of rats, bird droppings, spiders, feathers and rodent corpses in various stages of decomposition. Boarded-up windows enclose the midnight fugue of sickly-sweet mustiness. The third, crowning a punishingly steep spiral staircase, opens into a single room perhaps used by guards on lookout: large, open windows survey Ihrne’s downwall streets and yards. Remnants of a broken chair moulder by the soot-stained fireplace; rusting hooks and dusty cobwebs dangle from bird-soiled rafters. Light and air lessen death’s reek, but rat droppings scatter the floor and moss grows thick beneath windows and missing tiles.
Today, the room also contains a brown rug, a dented flask sitting by the largest window and Nevo’s overstuffed pack—the rug rucked up as though hurriedly cast aside.
There’s only one reason for Nevo to sleep here: Desh.
“I’m going to lie you down.”
“I don’t…” Harper swallows, too aware that only Nevo’s arm keeps him upright after the tower’s brutal corkscrew steps. Knees? What knees? “I can … sit up. Probably.”
Nevo gives one of his softer, more horse-like snorts. “When I stitch that cut, you’ll chuck up or pass out, so we’re all better starting on the floor.”
“You don’t think … much of my ability to tolerate pain,” Harper says breathlessly, startled by both Nevo’s declaration and his accompanying confidence. Offended, too … but such misapprehension may stop Nevo from noticing anything else amiss, so Harper doesn’t protest. He’s safe. Safe if Nevo has no reason to look past Harper’s neck. “Can you even sew? Besides, shouldn’t you … ask me, first?”
“Da. At least once a month since I was eleven.” Nevo’s voice quietens. “I don’t know how to seam and fix clothes, but I’m used to men coming home bloody. And that cut at your eyebrow will keep breaking open.” He lowers them both to the floor before reaching for the rug. “Lie on your side, or you’ll choke if you vomit.”
Too surprised by that awful revelation to respond, Harper lets Nevo take his shoulder and roll him onto his hip. At first, Harper can’t swear that the tower isn’t swaying, but once his head and side ease enough for breath, he pulls at his coat pockets, shifting his rocks away from his ribs.
Nevo frowns, draping the rug over Harper’s legs and torso.
“Is that Desh? The vomiting thing?”
Nevo nods, sliding his coat down his shoulders and arms. “Sometimes drinking. Sometimes cause Da picked a fight with someone who beat him over the head.” He sighs, shuddering, as he rolls the coat into a rough tube and ties it fast with his scarf. “I spose you’ve got a story for why you’ve been gouged by … a broken bottle? A ring? Lift your head a little.”
“Nails holding the crates together.”
“Course.” Nevo snorts, sliding the coat beneath Harper’s head—which, while uncomfortable, is a better pillow than the hard, filthy floor. “Not a knife or nothing like that.” He frowns, turning to grab the flask. “I’m going to wet a cloth, wipe some of the blood off, see what’s underneath. Lie still.”
Harper shivers. His head and face still ache like the anvil beneath a smith’s hammer, but he feels less giddy now that he’s lying down. Better enough to hope that a nap, or at least a few hours spent lying still, offer improvement sufficient to avoid terrifying Mama. Better enough that he needn’t risk Nevo’s bewildering attentiveness. “You don’t need to do anything. I’ll sleep for a bit and then clean up. Go home, if you want. I’m fine.”
“Fine?” Nevo, scoffing, drags his pack to his knee. “Don’t tell me why, then—I’ll stop asking, right? But I’m going to help, and I’m not going to, to … leave you when you’re hurt and acting weird—not normal weird.” He pulls a wad of cloth from the pack—two grey undershirts and a washcloth—and drops everything into his lap before pouring a small amount of water into his other hand. “Did you pass out, black out? Wake up on the ground not sure how you—and the crates—got there?”
Harper sighs in defeat. The morning feels oddly disjointed, like an unnumbered book missing several pages. “I … I don’t know.”
“Did you throw up?” Nevo scrubs his hands with a sliver of hard soap before rinsing them with another handful of water.
“Were you sick and giddy? Headachy?”
Mama warned against Harper’s befriending Nevo, fearing that two queer men couldn’t maintain a relationship without one pressing the other for—or seducing him into—sex. Harper ignored her, bemused by the idea that mere sexual interest must lead to dangerous, secret-threatening intimacy … but she wasn’t, in a way, wrong.
Friendship, taunting Harper with its promise of compassionate closeness, offers the greater threat.
In the name of avoidance, he asks the first question to come to mind: “Why didn’t you take Desh to Mother Lielen?”
Nevo, moistening the washcloth, shrugs. “Cause it was the middle of the night, cause he didn’t want her talking to the stabbers … mostly cause he goes looking for fights, cause he wants to hurt people and himself, and folks don’t … grasp.” He draws a deep breath. “I’m going to soak off the blood so I can see the skin.” He places one of the undershirts in Harper’s right hand. “Be ready to press this against the cut. Tell me if it hurts more or different.”
No, people don’t understand; Harper doubts he understands. Hatred for a body that others use as justification for confining him within a singular way of being? Distraction, via the clean sharpness of real pain, from a hell less tangible? A way of making said hell tangible? In the moment of harm he found a shape of logic, but now such comprehension flees his recall. He knows only that he wounded Mama more than his body … and that he can’t again subject her, for his sake and hers, to such agony.
Will Mama see his wishing to watch the parade the same way Nevo views Desh’s spoiling for a fight? Should she?
“Hold the cloth to the cut if it bleeds. Tell you if anything hurts more or differently.”
Nevo, frowning, glances down at Harper. “I’m going to move so I’m not blocking the window. Hold still.”
Despite feeling himself cowardly, Harper closes his good eye. Better that than the temptation of watching Nevo work, pondering the meaning behind every shift of arm or shoulder. No! He exhales, wincing at the wet cloth’s coldness and Nevo’s soft, dabbing motions. How is it easier to be punched in the face than to let someone wash away the blood afterwards? It probably isn’t easier to be punched should Ragen threaten as much beforehand, but—“Ugh, ugh, that.”
“Sorry, that skin stuck to my cloth—” Nevo’s hand snatches Harper’s, placing the undershirt over his brow; Harper can’t bite back a gasping grunt as the movement jars his side. “Press down with your fingers. Sorry. Uh … it’s shallower than I thought, but there’s a long flap of skin, like the … nail on the crate gouged underneath. Now I’ve cleaned off the crust, it’ll bleed when you move your face.”
The words “flap of skin” provoke a moment of stomach-churning nastiness. “That doesn’t sound … good.”
“It won’t be a deep scar. Just enough to look tough. Men like scars. Do women like men having scars?” Nevo hesitates. “I want to clean at the back of your head. Can you hold the cloth down while I do that?”
Harper, fearing such babble an attempt at distraction, wants to laugh. Etielle and Teora discussed their taste in suitors using language almost as crass as Ragen’s—just behind closed doors, for polite noblewomen don’t express sexual desires in mixed company. Never did they voice appreciation, in their detailed rankings of Ihrne’s noblemen, for something as pedestrian as a scar. “I think the idea that women like scars is something men like to tell themselves. And I can. Just … do what you need to.”
The cut is nothing more than tragic irony: a stamp of Ihrne-approved masculinity given only because Harper failed, in so many ways, to obey it.
Nevo exhales. The flask swishes; droplets patter onto the floor. A moment later that wet cloth dabs at the back of Harper’s head, and he jerks, shocked by the sting.
“Ugh…” He gulps and opens his good eye, fighting to keep from panting as his side twinges. “Sorry. I didn’t … I didn’t know there was anything there to hurt until you touched it. If that makes sense. Those crates. Lots of sticking out bits, I guess.”
“Did more Trads watch you and the goose? Or just Mother Lielen?”
Why does Nevo have to ask that, of all carelessly cruel things? Harper shivers, shifting his legs in hope of finding a less-chilly position: while the sun well lights the room, between the windows and the missing tiles, the bluestone refuses to relinquish night’s cold. The indifferent, lingering cold of an audience desiring only witness. “I thought you weren’t going to ask.”
Neither moderate volume nor even pace keep brittleness from sharpening his words.
“It’s an open scrape, so I need to wash the dirt out.” Water sloshes inside Nevo’s flask before droplets spill onto Harper’s head, rolling off his neck and onto his shoulder. “And I guess we’re both liars now.”
What to say to that? Harper stares at the stonework, searching for a casual, witty rejoinder that lets them both move past such bitter honesty. Why must Nevo talk? Can’t he let them both enjoy the benefits of awkward silence? “Is it … bad?”
“No. Just a bit of skin scraped off the top.”
Harper sighs, rolls his raised shoulder to ease the stiffening ache and studies the wall. A tendril of ivy grows over the sill of the largest window, the crumbled mortar serving as anchor. A small beetle scurries past the ivy, heading toward the driest, darkest corner by the fireplace—one occupied, like most of Ihrne’s unswept nooks and privies, by lurking redback spiders. At least they don’t accost people in the street for the crime of being queer … and Harper bites his lip, reconsidering: questions at least let him avoid unwanted flashes of memory.
Hide his pain. Keep his secrets. Maintain his sanity.
Such quests are only possible if he doesn’t fall apart.
“Why?” Nevo’s abrupt question sounds too plaintive to come from a man grown. “Why would she just … watch you fall from crates? Leave you to bleed?”
His distaste for games and evasions is no minor aspect in Harper’s appreciation of his company. Nevo can’t pretend to be anything other than Nevo, even should he desire it; his words carry no duplicity, trickery or even subtlety. He’s as forthright as is possible for a gay man in Ihrne, and if Harper never quite knows where he stands with Mama, Nevo provides stolidity. A taken-for-granted security now lost to Harper’s carelessness.
“They’re Trads,” he says at length. “I’m queer-ish and weird.”
“But you’ve always been queer-ish and weird, and nobody’s said much about that before now…” Nevo lifts his fingers from Harper’s scalp. “Nobody said much before now, did they?”
That phrasing offers a clever man a way to avoid honesty whilst not, strictly speaking, voicing a flat-out lie … and Harper considers this before settling for vague meaninglessness. “Not exactly.”
Nevo holds his silence for a long, aching moment; when he speaks, his gruff words bear more edges than most broken windows. “I’m going to lay out needle and thread, and then look at your brow again.”
Again, Harper speaks only to distract: “You have needle and thread in your pack?”
“It’s easier to have important things … there, if I need to leave suddenly.”
“I’m sorry. I should have thought.”
Nevo pulls the pack closer, shifting the straps out of Harper’s view. “I don’t know that most people’d have it with them, though.”
Harper does, less from concern of injury than clothing-related misadventure, and he sighs. He isn’t a woman, but he doesn’t regret the skills gained in his years living as one. He’ll never miss serving tea in the parlour, dressed to mimic Teora’s taste in expensive frills and ruffles; he misses the artistry in a world able to privilege and pursue beauty. Stitches owning no functional purpose than to introduce texture and pattern. Clothing existing for reasons not pragmatism. A wardrobe’s choices of colours, cuts and styles. Even the patient repetitiveness of piercing fabric and unpicking stitches, hours spent on a quest to produce perfection—or as close as his eyes and hands may bring him.
Why must he exchange one set of expectations for another? Why can’t he pick what suits him from a wealth of possibilities and craft a masculinity that’s uniquely Harper?
“I’m ready, I think. Keep your head turned to the side if you retch.”
While wickedly-sharp needles make for finer stitches, they also make for easier piercing of callused fingertips—and Harper long ago stopped noticing minor jabs and stabs. What sewist hasn’t raised a hand to discover a stitch drawn beneath a loop of roughened skin, thread binding finger to fabric? What sewist hasn’t cut the offending skin to avoid unpicking the stitch? A needle through the eyebrow can’t be as horrifying as Nevo makes out!
Such bravado fails to conquer Harper’s unsettled stomach and tensing limbs.
“I’m going to put this cloth over your face to catch the blood.”
Blood. I’ll give— “Did anyone ever have to stitch you up?”
“No.” Nevo places one of the folded undershirts over Harper’s eyes, angled so his nose and mouth remain uncovered, before resting a hand over Harper’s. “You can let go. Drop your arm.”
Harper lowers his arm onto the rug, more relieved to ease his shoulder than he cares to admit.
Nevo shifts, brushing a knee against Harper’s hair, before dabbing at the wound. “I’m going to hold the skin in place with one hand and then start. Don’t move. Unless you want to wink forever.”
Harper bites his lip, breathing evenly despite the jab of needle piercing skin … although he can’t halt a shudder at the blood rolling down his nose. After a second piercing, he’s sure that Nevo’s warnings are overblown. A sharp, tiny stab? Unpleasant, but not the worst thing Harper has endured today. Not even the worst of his pains right now.
He changes his mind the moment Nevo pulls on the thread.
Harper blinks. Nevo kneels before him with both hands decently in sight—one resting on Harper’s shoulder, the other holding the flask. Spots of water and blood dapple Nevo’s sleeves and waistcoat, but he looks like his normal shaggy-haired, cuff-flapping self, not a needle-wielding purveyor of unusual tortures.
“Just closed my eyes. Eye. In no way constituting a lack of consciousness, no matter how … uh, extraordinarily fleeting.” Sweat glues Harper’s shirt to his spine, his limbs shake like leaves in a gale and his face … well, his face hurts like one does after a few well-placed fists and time spent as Nevo’s pincushion. Something Harper doesn’t care to reflect upon. “And it’s mean to make a comment about giving a man a permanent wink when he can’t answer back. Also? You’re banned from saying my name for the rest of today. All your allotted ‘Harps’ and ‘Harpers’? Used up. Finished. Done.”
Nevo, his brow raised, holds out the flask. “Drinking helps. Can you sit?”
“It’s the most wrong-feeling thing.” Harper shudders. “You don’t feel the pull like that when you sew your fingertip to your fabric. You don’t.”
Nevo slides his arm beneath Harper’s back. “Sit and drink.”
Perhaps he lost his good sense alongside his dignity, for if Nevo’s willing to offer his body as support, Harper can’t bring himself to refuse. Oh, he knows the danger in such contact! Danger enough, in fact, that he has spent two years denying his yearning for simple closeness … but he’s giddy, aching and tired. He’ll never again possess this opportunity. Why not enjoy it just the once? One last indulgence, as Mama feared, before they abandon this life for another attempt at safety? One that Harper can’t again ruin?
Thinking about that conversation to come makes Harper’s eyes water, so he leans against Nevo’s hip and chest—fresh sweat and something astringent now obscuring the lavender—before taking the flask in one unsteady hand. Only when the water touches Harper’s lips does he discover himself possessed of a raging thirst. Working inside the Horseshoe on a stifling summer day thirsty! He drains the few mouthfuls of water remaining and lowers his hand, gasping. “What does it look like?”
“A cut over the middle of your eyebrow, going to your hair. Blood’s seeping into the bandage, but it should stop.” Nevo gulps, his voice thickening. “You’re … lucky, really lucky, they didn’t rip your eyelid.”
Harper drops the empty flask and, cautiously, reaches up. His eye feels alien and puffy, like skin inflated with water, and he grits his teeth as bruising pain flares under even gentle testing. Touching the bandage tied across his eyebrow provokes a stinging burn and leaves his fingertips smeared with blood. “My cap won’t hide all of this … where is it, by the way?”
Nevo shakes his head. “You weren’t wearing one.”
“I had it, before. I think I must have dropped it on the way here.” Harper glances around the tower room just in case, hating to consider a lost cap’s expense. How much will his and Mama’s packing up, finding a new place and searching for work cost them? Why didn’t he think about that? “Maybe I’ll find it on the way home.”
“I think I can’t believe that everyone let you walk from Devo to Cant with blood everywhere!” A growl roughens Nevo’s words, and he curls his free hand into a meaty fist. “You could’ve passed out in the street! What was so … so bad that you could fall off cr—no, fuck that! What was so bad that someone beat you up and folks twiddled their fucking thumbs? You haven’t done nothing worse than be smart to Ragen … and even he isn’t beating you up without someone seeing if you’re alive after! Even if you’re weird!”
“Don’t?” An incredulous scoff escapes Nevo’s lips. “You’re my friend, aren’t you? Do you think I’m going to twiddle my thumbs? That it can’t matter to me when another queer’s getting beat up—no, even if I was the straightest straight with a hundred wives, it’d matter cause I’m your friend! If you aren’t safe that matters, and we got to—not act like it’s nothing! Or that you can’t stand to let someone—”
Nevo’s teeth snap shut, his stubbled throat pulsing above his unbuttoned collar.
A roaring tempest smashes thought to fragments against the force of a taut body scrambling to extricate itself from Nevo’s embrace. A body falling, stumbling, panting; a body driven by the limb-shaking, overwhelming need to seek a space safely distant from all human threat. A body dragging in its wake the broken shreds of the being some call “Harper”, wholeness unnecessary and undesirable.
Some shreds find each other, move the body’s stiff lips, halt its quivering legs at the top of the stairs: “It doesn’t matter. We’re going away, somewhere else. Start again. And I can’t have that again, have someone, so it doesn’t matter.”
Another shard of personality marks the creases forming across Nevo’s brow and wonders why it considered provoking such confusion an enjoyable pastime.
More wail, horrified, at its speaking plain honesty.
“I’m sorry, Har—I’m sorry.” Nevo rises, making no move to follow; he stands by the abandoned coat and rug, brushing dirt from his trousers. “I’m … terrified.” He draws several shuddering breaths that fail to ease his strained, cracking voice: “For you, for me … and I didn’t know, until now … I’m Da. Watching someone I love hurt, being scared for them … ‘angry’ sounds so … not enough. Common. Empty. I’m terrified, and I’m furious, and I don’t understand why you’re talking as though this shouldn’t matter to me!”
The body peers down into a spider-infested blackness … but distaste for stepping upon animal corpses doesn’t cause its hesitation. “I’m leaving. With Mama. Start again. Avoid people. Be sensible. Don’t die.”
Nevo’s frown deepens. “Why?”
A piercing screech emerges from the body’s lips as pieces of personhood drift, coalesce and admit dreadful truth: “Because I got beat up in the street!”
“No, no, I meant … I wouldn’t stay, seeing every day the cowards who did nothing. Even if nothing else bad happened.” A trace of growl roughens Nevo’s voice, and he swallows, tucking his hands behind his back. “I get that. But why can’t I help? Why don’t I matter? Cause if you’re leaving … fuck Da, I’m coming with you! Why’d I stay here with the folks who hurt you?”
A sickening giddiness buckles the body’s knees; it sags against the wall, ignoring vaguely-remembered concerns about venomous spiders. How can he say that? Doesn’t he know what that means? What sacrifices he’ll be forced to make? “You only know the lies. You don’t know the meaning of what you’re saying.”
Nevo stares at the body’s face, his gaze steady. “I know you’re clever, ridiculous, queer like I want to be … and so, so frustrating. Maybe every second sentence out your mouth is some kind of lie … but I know when you don’t want to, cause you say bullshit like geese and crates. And…” He hesitates, scraping his teeth over his lip, before reaching up to straighten his spectacles. “And I think, I’ve always thought, that you’re … like the other prince, the new prince. Trans. And it isn’t right for me to guess cause you ought to choose when to say how you’re you, if so, but … you can’t bear me when you’re hurt, so maybe you need to know what I think first.”
A strange, croaking noise emerges from Harper’s wobbling lips. “And?”
“And what?” Nevo crooks his head, brow still furrowed. “There’s no ‘and’. Just … my friend, so I’m coming, wherever you’re going.”
Harper exists beyond controlling his hyperventilating body, possessed by emotion so immense that he once, when forced to playact femininity, made his limbs bleed to purge himself of it. He can’t speak, can’t reason; he can only let Nevo clasp Harper’s arm, brush away something that crawls, help him lie down, cover him with the rug—and watch Nevo settle himself, steady and warm, so his torso rests against Harper’s back. One long leg crosses over his ankles, shin brushing calf; one broad hand slides up and down his upper arm in a patient, unceasing rhythm.
Slowly, so slowly, his lungs expand, accept air, ease.
Slowly, so slowly, thought nibbles at emotion’s edges until Harper finds space enough to conjure a name for that all-encompassing feeling.
“Uncle Mo’s in Rajad,” Nevo murmurs, his hand never stilling. “I know he’ll—”
“Sei-li! Sei-li!” A deep voice, pitched so unnaturally high that Harper’s forearms goosepimple beneath his sleeves, floats up to the window. “Come out and talk! It mightn’t go so bad for you, Seili, if you do. If you make me have to come in, though…”
Every Boneyard denizen knows that voice: a loyal cousin who publicly displays an obeisant silence but privately speaks the words too horrifying to pass even a brash heir’s lips. A loyal cousin who, according to the Horseshoe’s gossips, ventures beyond casual punches in discharging Ragen’s desire for terror and revenge.
Everyone knows Maliea ein Ilveine.