Yuissa is the only partner Adelin wants, but survival in Ihrne requires both girls to keep secret their truth. No matter: they’re only a year away from having coin enough to escape to a cottage in Greenstone, a paradise of vegetable gardens, rescued cats and unrestrained affection. They can survive anything until then, right? Yet when Adelin’s worried mother and grandmother plot to solve Adelin’s unwed state by forcing her to court a male acquaintance, Yuissa thinks a beard the only answer.
A queer-seeming bookseller called Nevolin ein Yinne may do, but the process of asking isn’t quite so simple…
Setting: Catch a Man (Have the Girl) takes place a couple of months before Booksellers Who Know Things. It isn’t necessary to have read any of my other works to read this one (although it’s slightly more amusing if you know that Nevo thinks Adelin is sincere about wishing to date him).
Content Advisory: References to and depictions of emotional abuse, amatonormativity, misogyny, heterosexism and ableism; casual references to sex and sexual attraction; and discussions about and depictions of romantic-coded behaviours like embracing, physical intimacy and marriage. It should be noted that this story focuses on the misogyny dealt to women by other women.
Length: 4, 021 words.
Essay Note: I wanted to post a bonus piece on Patreon for my birthday. So I … started writing six days before said birthday. As this story was meant to be a flash fiction piece and isn’t, editing became the needed sacrifice.
I should mention that I’m uncomfortable with an attitude in some parts of the aromantic community that an alloromantic’s valuing of marriage as important is emblematic of rampant amatonormativity and, therefore, scornful. Marriage is a civil right that has not always been possessed by, and is still not universally possessed by, LGBTQIA+ people, disabled people, people of colour and/or people in multiracial relationships. For many marginalised people, marriage can be symbolic of identity, freedom, equality and hope in ways that have less to do with romantic attraction or romance. While we must and should discuss the ways it enables amatonormativity, we must and should respect its significance for other marginalised people. So I wrote a story about a queer aromantic girl who wants to marry a queer disabled (autistic) girl and finds marriage to be a symbol of her freedom, her strength and her queerness.
I don’t know, as a nebularomantic, if I’ve written a demiromantic or a demialterous/demiqueerplatonic aromantic character. Adelin feels a non-sexual attraction for Yuissa after the development of their close friendship, but the nature of said attraction isn’t something I can easily categorise in fiction or real life. As much as I believe it important to provide specific representation, all I can say here is read this as you will.
Lastly, I want to thank, from the bottom of my loveless aro heart, @the-rose-owl for being so generously encouraging of my writing aro stories that move outside of more standard aromantic themes. I couldn’t have posted this story without your most recent comment on Patreon.
Will Grandmam ever realise that bad girls have more reason than anyone to appear good?
“You need to take more care.” Mam stares across the table at Adelin, lips pinched as though it pains Mam to acknowledge her eldest daughter. She looks older than her early greying hair suggests, her skin dry and drawn. Yet her starched apron can stand on its own and not a single wisp emerges from her pinned-up braids despite her sharing Adelin’s propensity to curls. Surely Mam has better things to do than spend an age each morning on her toilet? “You know you’ll never catch a man if you don’t put up your hair.”
Adelin rests the urge to take a lock—almost forming corkscrews from the humidity of last night’s rain—and twine it around her finger.
Yesterday, Mam remarked on Adelin’s creased skirts.
The day before, Mam mentioned that Aunt Hilla thought Adelin was beginning to develop crow’s feet.
She scrapes up the last of the porridge, glancing down at the bowl. Mam has large feet, broad shoulders and a small chest, and Adelin inherited all three traits along with Pa’s tendency to plumpness. Mam isn’t the kind of woman people speak of as beautiful, a truth that may once have been mere statement of fact but became a shadow wrapped around Mam’s heart and bones. A shadow, its edges sharpened to cruelty from the pain the pins scraping against her scalp, now wielded against her daughters.
It’s desperation, Adelin tells herself. It’s love of a broken, wounded sort. It’s unnecessary, because every workday morning a woman looks at Adelin in want and wonder.
“The right man won’t care if my hair is up or down.” Adelin swallows the last of her porridge, tasteless despite her effort with oats and heavily-watered milk: Pa raided the striped jug in the pantry, again, for the kitchen money. “And some men who walk past the drapery peer through the window at me, so I don’t think they mind.”
She doesn’t leave her hair down for men. Yuissa steals every safe moment to run her fingers through the curls with the same intensity she brings to stroking cloth and cats. Adelin doesn’t share Yuissa’s rapture at petting fabric and fur, but never will she ask Yuissa to stop. She likes the expression on Yuissa’s face; she likes being so close to someone who won’t comment on Adelin’s appearance. She likes this expression of love as love should be, unburdened by judgement and expectation. She likes feeling beautiful and wanted.
“Hussy!” Grandmam rocks her battered chair in the corner by the stove. She gave Pa his plumpness and is still pretty with it, despite anger’s twisting her features and hardening her voice. Perhaps a stranger sees a soft, elderly woman with a liking for flowers embroidered on her shawl and skirts; Adelin sees the white-haired monster that taught Mam to hurt her own daughters. “That’s what Ceira became, and she always let her hair down.”
Cousin Ceira, again. The worst of bad girls, by Grandmam’s telling: a girl who abandoned her kin, her position and her betrothed to run off with another man. Ceira became the eternal shame of the family, a cautionary tale wielded to badger Adelin and her sisters into obliged obedience. Yet Ceira, as far as Adelin remembers, was a paragon of virtue: hair braided around her head, corset strings pulled tight, apron crisp, skirts and petticoats clean of dust even after walking across the city. She was a paragon until she wasn’t, but a bad girl can’t look like a good girl. In story Ceira became everything she wasn’t in life, just so Grandmam can live in a world where none struggle to tell the difference.
Will Grandmam ever realise that bad girls have more reason than anyone to appear good?
At least it’s true, unlike Mam’s imaginary crow’s feet.
At least nobody here knows how much it’s true.
A year. One more year of work, one more year of putting coin aside, one more year of enduring Pa, Mam and Grandmam. Adelin and Yuissa counted their savings just last week, comparing their original price estimates to new information gleaned from overhearing traders and merchants in the Lane. One more year to work and save before they’ll run away to live somewhere good encompasses two girls with a cottage, cats and a vegetable garden. Enough money for travel, a few months’ rent and emergencies. Yiussa and Adelin survived Ihrne and family this long, so what’s another year if neither girl fears returning home in shame from failure to account for mishap?
She has the girl, and Adelin won’t spend the rest of her life enduring her kin’s derision.
“You are getting too old for such behaviour.” Mam, as always, ignores Grandmam’s interjections. Adelin once dreamt that Mam would challenge Grandmam’s disdain for her granddaughters; never has it happened. Contradicting one’s domineering mother-in law, Adelin supposes, isn’t becoming in a woman. “If you don’t catch a man soon, you’ll never find one. Men don’t want to court a maid of twenty-one. I walked out with your pa for two years before, but I was a girl of eighteen when I wed.” Her voice softens, her brown eyes resting on Grandmam. “And still eighteen when you were born.”
Grandmam moves her chair with a violent enthusiasm, the frontmost tips of the rocker rails smacking against the smooth-worn bluestone floor.
She didn’t wed until she was nineteen, nearly twenty.
“That’s only three years older,” Adelin says, as she has at least once a week since graduating from school. One more year and she won’t be a bad girl fighting to appear as good as she can bear pretending. She’ll be a bad girl in every possible way, and the angels can take her name if she won’t revel in it! Two girls keeping house together—not because they’re spinsters resigned to co-habitation, but because they’re married. Folks in Malvade wed before a lawyer as though gods have no right to dictate human affairs, and while Adelin doesn’t know the process in other southern countries, she knows that two girls can exchange rings. However foreign the ritual in a country not Ihrne, she’ll wed Yuissa.
Maybe she’ll only have a ring of thread or yarn, but Adelin has a year to practice weaving embroidery silks in Yuissa’s favourite colours.
It still feels strange to her, this want for a lifetime with another.
She didn’t think herself capable of this deep feeling until Yuissa started working at the drapery. Girls are wonderful and Adelin will be bad for many of them—defiantly, proudly bad, as much as any girl in Ihrne can be. She can’t remember not feeling this way, can’t remember not wondering why girls in the schoolyard gossip about walking out with boys when girls are so much the prettier. Girls are worth, always, the difficulty in needing to phrase interest as hints or suggestions, the awkwardness in trying to determine another’s interest, the heart-pounding fear that this time she’s made a mistake that will follow her home. Girls are worth, always, those desperate moments in shadowed corners, those fleeting moments of skin brushing skin, those remembered moments of truth told and affirmed in connection.
Girls never felt like forever to Adelin.
They felt like distraction, survival, affirmation, sex.
They felt like right now, evanescent and temporary.
Yuissa, with her soft hands and considering thoughts, is the only girl for whom Adelin feels a heady permanence, a desire not encompassed alone by casual interludes or the socially-acceptable shapes of feminine friendship. Yuissa is the only girl for whom Adelin finds herself embroidering handkerchiefs or secreting dried flowers or sweets into skirt pockets as a surprise. Yuissa is the only girl with whom Adelin can’t just straighten her clothes and deliver a farewell kiss.
Over many months of getting to know the standoffish girl working at the back of the drapery, a girl that became her friend and then an irrevocable part of her future, a slumbering spark in Adelin flared bright.
She doesn’t understand this change, but neither does she regret it.
“Only three years!” Grandmam scoffs and glares at Mam. “How she displays such a lack of understanding of her duty to her father, I don’t know!”
Mam forces a tired smile and lets pass that insult.
“I know Orelle’s son still wants a girl to wife.” Grandmam clicks her teeth, shifting her burning glare Adelin’s way. “You won’t do better, leaving it this late. We should call on her.”
Man and maid, man and girl. As if the girl and the maid should never dream of standing on an equal footing with the man who becomes her husband. Why does nobody use girl and boy? Why are men permitted to become adult while women remain owned by father or husband? Why are women possessed until their fathers and husbands die … becoming crotchety hangers-on in a home passed from husband to son, fighting to reinforce a world that never served them?
Girl and girl or woman and woman: both are equals in ways men and women, together, should be.
Adelin places her spoon across her bowl, working to keep her expression pleasant. Calling on Orinde? Surely Grandmam can’t mean that? “If all we girls marry, you and Pa will have nobody in your—” She stops before the word “dotage”. If Grandmam has skill at any one art, it’s transforming her wounded dignity into everyone else’s suffering. “Nobody to stay at home and do for you. Why shouldn’t that be me, if no man will have me? You, Grandmam, have a son; Mam and Pa will need a daughter.” She smiles, her head angled away from Grandmam. Referring to her isn’t without risk, but only the ignorant and the foolish look. “May I please be excused, Mam?”
She has no intention of waiting on Ma, but better for her parents to think that her future over pressing Orinde’s suit.
Grandmam harrumphs, clicking her teeth. “Your father needs an heir to carry on his share of the business. Your duty as the eldest daughter is to provide him one, and that means marriage.” She turns her gaze on Mam, her withering brown eyes unsoftened by their framing wrinkles and creases. “It speaks ill of you that you haven’t approached Orelle and arranged what your daughter can’t. I shouldn’t have to mention this.”
Adelin stiffens. She has discouraged or turned down enough would-be beaus to count them on both hands, but should her parents or Grandmam involve themselves, how can she dissuade a man without their finding out? They won’t expect her to adore Orinde, but Adelin has had four years to find a man for a love match without success. What chance does she have if she turns down the man Mam arranged for her? Her family won’t throw her out for fear of gossip—Ceira caused enough of that—but they can make her home untenable and intolerable. If only it were easy to take up house with another young girl in Ihrne!
Yuissa’s parents forbade her from men, believing that a girl with her mind has no right to be a burden on a husband and his children. She can work, earn money for her brother and look forward to a life, at best, as another Grandmam. That differing shape of cruelty doesn’t deserve jealousy, but for a moment Adelin can’t help feeling it.
“Mam, may I please be excused?” She fights to keep her voice even. “Yuissa will be waiting to walk with me to the shop, and you know she doesn’t like walking on her own.”
“You’ll never get a man’s attention if you’re coddling that cat girl.”
Adelin fights to keep her anger from her face. Why does the character of Grandmam’s good girl possess so many absurd contradictions? Why must Adelin’s kin be so cruel and dismissive to Yuissa, a girl who hasn’t done anyone any harm?
Mam, thank the angels, nods. “Bring back muslin for Sila’s sheets. Tell Nirele to take it from your pay.”
That means the sisters will spend the evening sewing sheets, and Adelin will take a hundred thousand of them despite her dislike of the work over further mention of courting Orinde. “Of course, Mam. Thank you.”
Perhaps this talk of men is just that. The family needs her wage; Adelin can’t think what they’ll do after Adelin leaves and Reilin marries her beau. What good is Pa’s having an heir to a failing business? Will Mam have to work? Will Grandmam have to give up her rocking chair?
Adelin bites back a sigh, rises and clears away her bowl, spoon and cup before turning to the row of nails by the door. Fourteen nails, one set low and one set high, forming seven pairs for Mam, Pa, Grandmam and four daughters. Four sets of nails are empty of cloaks, caps and bonnets: the younger girls leave first for school followed by Pa and Adelin’s oldest sister, Reilin, who works for an upwall merchant. Taking an hour to walk to work in a reputable district is a feather in the family’s cap; never has Adelin envied her.
“You can’t leave this up to her,” Grandmam announces, her voice too loud for the small kitchen. “Talk to Orelle today, have Orinde call tomorrow.”
Adelin’s hands tremble as she throws her cloak over her shoulders and fumbles with the strings. Surely Mam will do nothing, if only to spite Grandmam?
“I’ll call this morning.” Mam speaks in a slow, heavy voice. “I’ll ask if Orinde will consider Adelin. Is that enough, Mother?”
Grandmam scoffs. “Enough? You spoil those girls. You never should have let this go on so long.” She snorts now, horse-like. Elderly women, it seems, are permitted to make such unbecoming noises. “And those sheets! I never tore a foot through my sheets, but if I had, I would be expected to sew the tear without a peep of complaint, and nor would I! Buying new sheets! I never!”
Mam will no doubt spend the day suffering Grandmam’s list of grievances about her daughters, none of them as good as they ought to be. None of them, Adelin thinks with no small amount of vindictiveness, as good as their pious, perfect grandmother, who lived a blameless life of obedience and became a petty, hateful old woman whose only joys are harassing her own kin.
Still shaking, Adelin pulls her hair out over the hood of her cloak before taking up the tin lunch pail from the step beneath.
“Those sheets have been mended six times.” Mam speaks as though trying to keep from spitting out her teeth. “They’re too worn for sewing.”
“Nonsense! Any girl worth her needle should know how to—”
“Goodbye,” Adelin calls before opening the door. She steps out onto the stoop and resists the urge to slam said door for Mam’s sake, shivering despite the mild morning. Orinde! Only a year to go and now Grandmam speaks of Orinde?
The proof that the angels disprove of a queer girl lies in Grandmam’s continued ability to draw breath.
The proof that the angels don’t despise a queer girl lies in the existence of the plump girl in a brown dress waiting on the corner, bent down far enough to scratch the jaw of a flea-bitten orange tabby cat. Yuissa jerks her head up, lips trembling: even if nobody bothers her, she gets anxious when people don’t arrive at the time set. She once knocked on the door when Adelin was late, but after Grandmam called Yuissa into the kitchen and barked questions, she won’t come any closer to the house than the lamppost.
Not for anything in the world does Adelin blame her.
“I’m sorry,” Adelin says, dodging puddles as she runs over. “Grandmam was being Grandmam, and Mam wouldn’t let me leave table because Grandmam stole her spine the day she married Pa.”
Yuissa draws a breath, nods and offers a slight smile, small lips framing wide-gapped teeth. “I talked to Tabbers this morning. He was company.”
Fifteen stray tabby cats wander this street, and Yuissa named all of them different variations on the word “tabby”. It took some talking, one afternoon, for Yuissa to agree that running away from Ihrne will be too difficult with cats in tow. That isn’t fair or right, and Adelin means to leave a letter asking Sila to feed the cats whenever she’s able, but the thought of fleeing the city with yowling cats in a basket—especially if they’re followed—doesn’t seem workable.
When they find a welcoming town or village, Yuissa can rescue all the cats she likes.
“Good morning, Tabbers.” Adelin curtseys to the cat and loops her arm through Yuissa’s, the lunch pail hanging between them. “Thank you for keeping my girl company.”
The cat looks up at Adelin and yowls.
“I’m sorry about your grandmother.” Yuissa wraps her hand atop Adelin’s while picking her way over the wet cobblestones, her shoes crossing as few cracks as possible. “Was she very, very bad?”
Adelin draws a steeling breath and finds it an exercise in uselessness. “They want to see if Orinde will have me. Mam will call on Orelle today.”
“Orinde?” The horror in Yuissa’s low voice and wide eyes changes nothing and means everything. “Oh, no, no. We need you to not marry for a year but for them to not worry about your not marrying during this. I am thinking.”
Yuissa’s mother makes her wear her brown hair in two schoolgirl braids down her back. Freckles and moles scatter her light skin; dimples mark both cheeks. She rarely smiles, most often showing the world her lip-chewing thinking face or an uncanny, uninterested stillness. Once, Adelin guessed it an attempt to appear more adult, the fear that a smile will reinforce the aura of forced childishness. Now, she knows the truth: delight is a precious, dangerous secret between Yuissa and someone she trusts, too wonderful and too vulnerable to give carelessly.
In Adelin’s first weeks at the drapery, she thought Yuissa reserved, unfriendly and odd. She can be that, but now Adelin sees a wall between the person the world denies and the person expected by her family. Permitted behind that wall, Adelin found warmth, bravery and unending curiosity.
Yuissa can go a week in the drapery without talking to anyone not Adelin; many Boneyard folks may have never heard her speak to anyone not a cat.
Yuissa calculates the money they need to make their flight a success.
“You need someone,” Yuissa murmurs as they turn into the alley leading into Devotion Lane, “who walks out with you but doesn’t mean it. You can turn down Orinde without your people disagreeing, because you have a beau. Do they want that? A man, any man, not a, a specific man? Would that be enough?” She speaks so softly that Adelin works to hear her under the noise of shouts, hooves, carts and a flock of pigeons taking wing over the crowded tenements. Even this early, the Boneyard teems with people like ants spilling from a hive; nobody not returning from a night’s work lies abed past dawn. “But you don’t want to turn down Orinde to have someone else who also … wants. Who isn’t going to want to really court a girl? Maybe like us? Do we know any boys like that?”
Adelin frowns, working her way through all the young men and boys in the Boneyard.
Only one name sticks in her mind.
She doesn’t know for sure if the boy in the bookshop down the street is queer or just shy. Adelin has never seen Nevo out walking with a girl or expressing interest in them beyond casual comments at school that, in hindsight, sound like the way Adelin speaks of men. That cliched mention of interest in response to someone’s questioning, passionless mimicry wielded for the need to belong. Yes, he’s so tall and I do like his shoulders, even though shoulders are the least interesting part of anyone. Oh, my beau’s a friend of my cousin’s out by Tall Spires, even though no such friend exists. Talk that holds no substance on deeper examination but avoids accusations.
Girls are allowed more space for affection with each other. It’s even easier with Yuissa, when most assume her in need of reassurance or direction. Coddling, as Grandmamma claims, and so people see what they want to see instead of what exists, even when Adelin all but flaunts it. Even before Yuissa, Adelin found it easier to smile at a girl, to touch her forearm, to provoke closeness knowing that she can claim friendship should the girl she’s testing react badly. With Nevo, there’s only a guess based on absence, but gentlemanly boys shouldn’t touch, embrace or kiss their girls before engagement. A good boy unlucky enough to find a girl may not look too much different from a careful queer one. How does she tell?
For all Adelin knows, he does have a girl out by Tall Spires.
“Nevo,” Adelin says slowly. “Maybe. Do you know for sure?”
Yuissa frowns and shakes her head.
Asking is the only way to know if he’s willing to pretend to court her. But what if she’s wrong? There aren’t many reasons why a girl will pretend to walk out with a boy when she can find another for real courtship; they aren’t close enough that Adelin can ask such an unusual favour as a friend. Nevo appears a decent sort, disinclined to push or press should he prefer women. She doesn’t wish to lead him on, but what if she asks if he’d like to accompany her on a walk? Or, like most girls in the Boneyard, talk him into inviting her to watch a football game?
“You know how long it took for me to ask you directly,” Adelin says, squeezing Yuissa’s hand. She checks the street and guides them both across, glad that, here, Yuissa foregoes cracks for speed. It bothers her, but she’s been shouted at too many times now to dawdle. “I don’t think we can do that at first. But I can ask if he wants to go walking with me and then try to find out if he’s seeing a girl. Or interested in them. Then when we know, assuming he isn’t, we can ask properly and explain about Orinde.”
Adelin may have to accept Orinde’s company for a few weeks. Another man on her arm, though, may mean Adelin can turn down Orinde without undue challenge—at least from everyone not Grandmam. Besides, Pa may find that Nevo’s quiet bookishness makes a more appealing son-in-law than Orinde. Mam may enjoy the ability to snub Grandmam’s choice of suitor while letting go her fears that Adelin won’t find a husband.
It’s a hundred thousand shapes of lie, but is falsehood so terrible when she can’t survive the truth?
“Just for long enough to save.” Adelin swallows, her throat tight and her voice hoarse, thinking of a tiny cottage home to two girls and several cats. “A year, so they don’t get any dangerous ideas. That’s all.”
“I know. I know you don’t want anyone else,” Yuissa whispers, her voice dark and fierce. “I want you, and a kitchen that’s mine, and things where I want them, and a hearth that isn’t swept, maybe, as often as I should.” She frowns, brow furrowed. “I said I’d do the indoors work. Do you mind?”
“Only if you don’t mind that the yard will be half buried in weeds,” Adelin murmurs, “because we’ll be too busy to bother.”
“But we can eat dandelions. Save the dandelions.” Yuissa nods before raising her free hand to cover her lips. “Oh. Oh! Busy like that. Yes.”
One day, Adelin thinks, they’ll talk of dreams in loud voices.
One day, Yuissa won’t hide her smile behind her hand.
If that means using Nevo to avoid Orinde in the meantime? So be it.
“On break,” Adelin says as they walk past the bookstore, “how about we see if we can catch a man?”