Ponder Sheafed can’t stop asking questions. Ze isn’t the girl others presume hir to be. Ze won’t become a wife or let a wedding’s absence stopper hir lust. Ze isn’t good, so maintaining hir kinsfolk’s high regard demands a complicated dance of stealth, secrecy and untruth. Ponder does, however, own some ability in deception … so when tragedy befalls hir family, how does ze explain that–despite all appearance to the contrary–ze can’t trade hir life’s service for a unicorn’s magic?
Only virtuous maidens may enter the forest to seek a creature as pure as a unicorn. Returning home empty-handed avoids provoking Father’s rage by confessing unacceptable truths, so what options has ze other than embarking upon a farcical quest for hir family’s salvation … and dreading the failure to come? No unicorn can ever grace an unrepentant liar!
Ponder isn’t good. But neither, ze discovers, is the unicorn.
Ponder knows that consequences must someday claim hir. Ze just didn’t expect Mama to have to pay the price.
Contains: A genderless, non-partnering allo-aro who speaks lies to live hir truth in a village that prizes a girl’s goodness above all else … and a unicorn whose duty to humans has been wildly misrepresented.
Setting: Nine Laws but entirely stand-alone.
Content advisory: This story depicts a culture of misogyny, cissexism, sex negativity, heteronormativity and amatonormativity, including the presumption of being cis, experiencing sexual and romantic attraction, and marrying a cis person of the other binary gender. Please also expect depictions of purity culture, use of misogynistic slurs, forced gendering and/or genderless erasure, a focus on non-partnering and non-parenting experiences, death and illness mentions, and references to sex and sex acts. “Love” is used primarily in the romantic sense and, as is common in casual use, conflated with romantic attraction.
The word “girl” is used to mean “a not-adult female person”; the word “woman” is used to mean “an adult female person”. In this village, “woman” is bestowed upon a female (or presumed female) person who is or has been married. “Girl” refers to a female (or presumed female) person who hasn’t yet married, is expected to be virginal, and is young enough to bear children, even if she has otherwise reached adult age.
Length: 2, 686 words (part one of three).
Note the first: Myths and legends position unicorns as the literal embodiment of goodness. In stories where unicorns are rare, mystical or special, only a person of profound virtue may access or interact with them. In the Western tradition, where the Christian influence is inescapable, a girl or young woman’s necessary “purity”, “innocence” or “virginity” is often implied if not stated outright. “Goodness” in this context is misogyny given a glittery burnish: a way to make desirable the restrictions and limitations imposed upon women and people perceived as women.
The female or perceived-as-female characters who most resemble loveless, unwed, polyamorous and/or non-partnering allo-aros are the unquestionably impure: sex workers, the promiscuous, the immoral, the villainous. (Allo-aros who are least able to conform to Western societal norms are, of course, most vulnerable to harm via such stories.) Consequently, few stories depict us, or the characters most like us, as rightful recipients of a unicorn’s presence.
I don’t believe the notion of purity worth reclaiming, salvaging or redeeming. In this story, I’m simply making space for allo-aros as sympathetic protagonists in the narrative traditions we take for granted … which means unicorns can no longer be paragons of a quality long used to dehumanise and denigrate.
Ze trembles as the priest’s fingers glide over hir skin, leaving an oily sheen in their wake. After the scrubbing given hir by the village matrons, in which no part of hir body escaped the attentions of soap and brush, Ponder should feel inured to touch. Good girls have no reason to think suggestively of a ritual cleansing, after all … but isn’t the act of smearing sacred oils over bare breasts the reason some young men join the priesthood? Ze can’t say that ze wouldn’t be intrigued by the opportunity, were circumstances reversed—although hir attempts at unquestioning devotion to the ways of most gods can only result in futility and disaster.
Even ze doesn’t fancy hirself that accomplished a liar.
Isn’t that, however, the problem? Last night, Ponder crept into the hayloft, shucked hir nightgown and arranged hirself—atop a blanket, of course—over the bales so that when Faith climbed the ladder, he’d first see hir legs spread, hir fingers lazily teasing hir sex. Nor did ze suffer awkwardness over the actions that followed, save for the need to keep quiet. Faith makes hir feel pleasure; ze makes him feel pleasure. Nothing about interactions they enjoy should cause consternation, even when inappropriate for public display, but such experience leaves hir struggling to ignore the priest’s lingering eyes. Ze well knows what men look like when they appreciate hir naked body!
Perhaps things would have gone better if Father did catch hir and Faith. True, the worst would have occurred … but hir stomach won’t then know dread’s nauseating knot.
Hope is a vicious, perilous disease.
The priest’s droning words skip past hir ears. Ze watches his hands, hir own tensed for fear he touches something he oughtn’t and ze must wield hir nails in defence. Fortunately, he doesn’t idle; after dabbing oil between Ponder’s toes, he wipes his hands on an embroidered cloth and permits the waiting matrons—hir sister amongst them—to hustle forwards. Like ants swarming a corpse, they guide hir arms into a gauzy robe and hir feet into white satin slippers. Ze stares down at the robe, biting hir tongue against a rude snicker: what purpose has a garment so sheer that hir nipples show through the fabric? What function have slippers set to be soiled the instant ze steps outside?
Aren’t good girls models of decorum, clad in clothing sufficient to conceal necks and ankles? Or, at least, undergarments?
Forget decorum: if ze must spend the night in vigil by a lonely pond, shouldn’t ze wear something warm?
Hir sister releases hir long hair from beneath the collar and drapes it down hir back, squeezing Ponder’s hip before retreating with the other neck-covered women. She clasps her hands before her rounded belly, her expression less solemn than rigid. Ponder knows her too well to see those twitching fingers signalling anything but terror.
She has reason to doubt the village’s accepted truth: that Ponder Sheafed, unwed and decent if too forthright to be wholly respectable, owns the last quality required of someone purified, sanctified and sent to petition a unicorn.
Ze draws a shaking breath and considers, again, the perils of honesty.
Hir sister’s harsh whisper brings hir to hirself. The priest, his eyebrows raised, gestures at the door—in a robe of opaque red damask!—with the impatience of a man who has done so more than once.
“Sorry,” ze murmurs, hitching up the robe in one hand and walking—as best ze can in those silly, ribbon-tied slippers—through the atrium towards the temple entrance.
Outside, fading orange streaks to the west farewell the sun. The other villagers—men, youths, maidens, children—form two lines separated by the path leading from temple doorstep to dark forest. Candles and lanterns illuminate serious expressions in fire’s warm, ordinary light; witch stones, chunks of veined quartz the size of Ponder’s fist, cast an eerie green glow along the path before vanishing into the forest’s depthless dark.
Hir teeth chatter. No, the trees shouldn’t harm hir if ze keeps to the path, but the requirement that ze stumble through the night, worse than barefoot, no longer seems an abstract cruelty. How many girls vanish during their sacred quests, devoured by feeders, mists or magic? How many return, scratched and limping, because the priests object to sensible footwear? Will these people, pinning their hopes upon hir trembling shoulders, brave the forest to find hir? Or will they deem hir faithless and unworthy, reckoning hir fate well-deserved?
“Mortal eyes and mortal ears deem her pure,” the priest announces, standing beside Ponder atop the step, “but mortals are infallible. Only the gods will truly perceive another’s heart.” He nods at the crowd, and Father, holding a lamp in both hands, approaches as the matrons fan out behind. “May their regard do our desires justice.”
Her. Ze shudders.
Father hands Ponder the lamp, leaning forwards to kiss hir upon the cheek. “Save her,” he whispers. “It’s the least that you owe us.”
Ponder nods and steps onto the path, obediently silent. Only one villager has kept at home; all others watch as ze walks, clad in garments that in any other circumstance provoke all manner of scorn. Ze holds hir head high, fixing hir eyes upon the treeline lest ze mark any unforgettable, unforgivable glances from neighbours, cousins and customers. The wrought-iron and glass lantern, the flame flickering as ze moves, at least prevents hir from crossing hir arms over hir chest—for ze refuses to succumb to further shame.
These robes already mark hir pitiful surrender to cowardice.
“Save her!” they cry as ze passes, their voices demanding and desperate. “Save her!”
Faith stands at the end of the line, a gap of several paces left between him and his brother. He too wears his holiday finest, his boots polished to a gleam, his candle held in unsteady hands. In the twisting, shifting firelight, his freckles appear as vivid splotches on an unnaturally-pale, ancient-seeming face—a world away from the gap-toothed boy with carroty hair ze calls friend. He casts his hazel eyes downwards, the only witness to offer hir such respect … and ze wonders, again, if ze can’t learn to love him. Can’t ze exist companionably with a young man who always smells of horse, stammers his own name in Father’s presence and captures creatures in wood with his clever knife?
What if ze stops, here and now, to announce both hir crimes and hir intent to wed hir co-conspirator in lust? Will a marriage, a husband and children earn hir respectability enough that Father can condone hir failures?
Ponder and Faith expressed their attraction for one another in the way shy young folks do: awkward salutations and remarks about the weather, making excuse to cross each other’s paths, less-awkward exchanges about horses, family and the weather. Quiet smiles and lingering glances grew into blushing compliments and hesitant touches, until the summer day they not-at-all-coincidentally met beneath the forest’s sheltering fringes… and had their fumbling, frantic way with the other. What lessons Faith gained ze doesn’t know, but for Ponder sex was a revelation: a body, hir body, could exist for giving and receiving pleasure. Touch—his touch, hir touch—awoke a slumbering piece of hir soul, a piece that found no just reason to deny hirself glorious hedonism.
In his presence ze revels, momentarily freed from its many agonies, in hir suit of flesh.
Faith’s words, after that first coupling, were far less enthused: “I suppose that we have to marry now, don’t we?”
Ze could have—should have—agreed. A wedding after an untimely bedding was, after all, expected. Hir sister, possessed of the worldliness granted by her marriage band and a babe at breast, had noticed the way Ponder looked at the innkeeper’s youngest son; she brought up the subject one morning as they washed and wiped the breakfast dishes. “Have you bedded him yet?”
“No!” ze cried, hir cheeks warming … for, as ze lay in bed at night with a body that ached for release, such pursuits had often crossed hir mind. “Of course not!”
Ponder knew in the deepest stirrings of hir heart that ze wasn’t a boy and couldn’t be a girl … but ze laced hir corset, donned hir petticoats and pinned hir hair, for while ze helped in both smithy and stableyard, ze wasn’t permitted to be anything less than respectable. Engaging in needful hard labour, Mama insisted, doesn’t excuse a woman in neglecting her femininity.
In those days ze tried, despite a tongue prone to asking “why”, to obey hir parents, priests and gods.
Even if obedience required an inordinate amount of time spent biting hir lip.
“Mama will never admit to it, but most girls have her man before the wedding. Who buys a horse without first riding him to learn his nature? Or, if you’re sure you want his hand, wait upon ceremony? Most men don’t want to wait, and it’s easy to lose a man to a girl who won’t. And … well, some of us don’t want to wait, either.” Hir sister laughed, winking at Ponder, before glancing pointedly at her again-growing belly. “If you set a date the moment you miss your blood, the wives won’t gossip too loudly. Not when they know they did the same.”
Ponder, accepting hir sister’s words as permission, believed in the expectations laid in age-old tales until the moment “yes” withered upon hir lips.
“Do we,” ze said in response to Faith’s unromantic proposal, “even have to?”
No language known to Ponder encompasses the friendship they forged as secret lovers, but they need no such words to celebrate its rightness. By day, they shared their lives with their families, dodging expectation to wed via Faith’s stammering shyness and Ponder’s increasing bluntness; by night, they came together in search of intimacy’s heady joys. This, they agreed, is perfection: all the pleasures of the bed and all the independence of youth, free of household, spouse and obligate children. For Ponder, their agreement meant escaping wifehood—in which the rules of femininity seemed yet more onerous, even if honouring them earnt one more respect than hir threatening spinsterhood.
Whatever pull to shared love and partnership a person should have, Faith possesses it no more than ze—and ze no more than Faith.
“Save hir,” he whispers, his voice all but inaudible.
Ze shakes hir head and continues along the path. No, Faith doesn’t desire marriage. While he will obligingly wed hir should ze need him to, ze can’t bear the thought of their friendship crumbling beneath the weight of their days and nights crafted around each other.
Ponder knows that consequences must someday claim hir.
Ze just didn’t expect Mama to have to pay the price.
By the time ze passes beneath the forest’s fringes, hir eyes have grown accustomed to the dark. No longer simply a shapeless mass, the trees form tall, twisted shadows—hiding the cause of animal cries, squeaks and barks—before fading into the black night. The witch stones, placed in pairs every few yards, lead onwards in a winding, broken line, appearing and vanishing after ze rounds another boulder or stumbles down a muddy slope. Leaves and twigs crack beneath hir feet, and ze keeps stubbing hir toes on myriad rocks, roots and saplings revealed, an instant too late, by the lantern’s orange light. The robe, long enough to tangle at hir ankles, little protects hir from scratches, scrapes and the breeze’s chill fingers. Ponder swears under hir breath, hir gait now less a steady stride than a halting limp. How do the priests expect a girl in useless garments to traverse a path not used enough to be anything but overgrown? Ze ought to thank the gods that Father at least conjured this terrible idea during late spring!
Is unneedful difficulty the purpose? Must ze, for reasons unmentioned, suffer every step on hir way to beg for a unicorn’s magic?
The joke, then, lies upon the gods: not since Father roused hir from bed and demanded ze submit hirself has Ponder done anything but suffer.
Every maiden, and those presumed to be one, knows what may be asked of her if horror befalls her house, kin or village. A girl of good name must venture into the forest upon a moon-dark night. She, with but a lantern to assist her, follows the witch-marked path towards a deep, black pond. On its sandy shores, she takes her lonely night’s vigil—and if the gods below deem her pure of heart and spirit, she may be graced upon the sun’s rise with the sight of a unicorn supping at bewitched waters. With all praise to its eldritch beneficence, she must offer her life in service. If the gods deem her pure of intent and deed, she will win the use of the unicorn’s power, for magic lies within every silvery filament of its hair and hide.
No rope, chain or shackle can hold a unicorn. Only girls, maiden and unwed, may barter themselves for rain, plague-cures or protection from marauders. No village priest commits the blasphemy of sending a girl believed to be anything but virginal.
Ponder isn’t unskilled in the art of deception.
Hir right slipper snags on a protruding branch; only a frantic waving of hir arm keeps hir from tipping over. Ze halts, panting, and rests the lantern on the ground to reclaim hir slipper—the satin upper stained, the ribbon torn, the shoe as ruined as ze. Tomorrow, ze’ll return along this cursed path, for no unicorn will come … and the village will alight upon all possible reasons for hir failure. Perhaps hir sister will voice hir suspicions. Perhaps hir neighbours will remember that ze has rejected every last proposal, and why refuse marriage if not for already having put hirself in a man’s way?
When folks speak of unicorns, only one reason matters.
People will mutter harshness behind hir back: fallen, bitch, slut. Father will speak it to hir face … and if such words be his only response, Ponder must account hirself fortunate. Hir only grace is the knowledge that Faith’s name shapes his truest nature; he won’t betray hir. Unless someone observed hir with him and kept this scandalous secret for future revelation, nobody owns proof. They may assume the maiden they sent to treat with a unicorn isn’t one, but they can’t claim that the unicorn didn’t reject hir for another quality … like hir not being a girl. Or hir tendency to the outspoken!
That alone saves hir from conviction, even if ze will never again enjoy the villagers’ respect.
“Slut,” ze whispers, knotting the longest piece of ribbon about hir ankle. Why did ze choose selfishness and self-indulgence? Why did ze revel in hir certain belief that Ponder and Faith’s exchange of pleasures doesn’t merit condemnation—that hir kinsfolk bind themselves to restrictions unable to offer all true happiness? Why didn’t ze ignore the feeling that wifehood must become hir prison sentence, so that Father has no cause to think hir the family’s salvation?
“Let this be the reason you insist on being a husbandless plague upon my house!” Father pushed hir, still shift-clad, towards the door as if set on enforcing hir compliance. Even his loud slurring couldn’t smother the gasps and grunts echoing from his bedchamber—the gasps and grunts of a woman in too much pain to rest. A woman dying from the illness still devouring the remnants of her wasted body. Mama. “Put your empty cunt to use tonight and bring her the unicorn’s magic!”
What can ze say to a man, drowning his grief in drink and rage, who sees in hir the last chance to save his wife—hir mother?
So ze, coward, endured the farce of ritual bathing and ceremonial blessing. Ze let hir family bear undeserved hope, for a cold night outdoors offers fewer dangers than speaking hir truths.
No unicorn will come for hir, because Ponder is something worse than a slut or not-girl: a pathetic, craven liar.