After a night of revelations to her dead aunt Rosie and her living brother Esher, Mara Hill must dare another with Benjamin Lisbet. If she’s truly the woman Mara hopes, surely Benjamin will be receptive to a conversation of the “I love you and want to be with you, just not romantically” sort? Surely this afternoon won’t stray beyond Mara’s preparations of a picnic basket, chives, rehearsed speeches and less-rumpled clothing?
Yet her months of searching for magic to refresh her fading love means there’s too much she doesn’t know about Benjamin. Too much Mara needs to know to hold this conversation without losing Benjamin’s friendship.
Mara thought speaking of her fading love under cover of dark difficult enough … but speaking of romance in daylight is another challenge entirely.
Contains: A sapphic, lithromantic trans witch making a misstep in the quest to build a love that honours her nature; an autistic, idemromantic schoolmarm with coeliac revealing her struggles in building romantic relationships with allistic women; and a conversation concluding in utterances of the word “when”.
Content Advisory: This story contains non-explicit references to sex and sex acts by two allosexual aromantic-spectrum women. These references are more integral to the story and their relationship than in my other pieces, in that I’m not relying on mentions of sex as something these characters have or desire to convey their allosexuality.
It should be noted that this piece contains discussions about romance, romantic relationships and sexual relationships, along with the ways these intersect with autistic-targeted ableism and reflections on ways to navigate sexual non-romantic relationships. I don’t recommend this story for people who experience severe sexual and/or romantic repulsion.
Length: 3, 241 words (part one of two).
In so long fearing her inability to stay in love, she has donned fear’s cloaking veil of abstraction and self-obsession.
In the bright of day, a light breeze stirring dust onto her skirts, Mara walks in the company of a litany of unasked questions. How does a girl best tell another girl about different kinds of love? Should Mara consider the consequences of having this conversation with Benjamin Lisbet, schoolmarm and governor of Dead Horse Hill’s small library? Can she accept both Mara’s nature and Mara’s affection?
Last night, her course of action held fewer complications. Meet Benjamin at the schoolhouse, explain Mara’s shape of love, discuss her needs from their relationship. Something, according to Aunt Rosie, that isn’t or shouldn’t be so complicated a prospect.
Why does bravery feel more difficult when the sun warms Mara’s braided hair and every step of her booted feet brings her closer to discovering no ideal answer? That last night’s question provided a good—if unexpected—resolution doesn’t mean that a second must follow!
Esher shouldn’t mind borrowing books for her, Mara thinks as she adjusts her sweaty-palmed grip on her basket. She’ll survive if she never again reads save through an intermediary’s efforts. She can buy her own books or devote more time outside to trowel and bucket. What witch doesn’t own a weed collection threatening to conquer her garden? Her vegetable bed will appreciate a good mulching before the hotter days strip the soil’s spring moisture. She can even clean her bedroom, should she need distraction!
Can she avoid someone in a village as small as Dead Horse Hill?
She breathes in, breathes out, swings the basket in time with her steps. She’s prepared, as much as any witch can be—the basket housing a bottle of what Reggie calls “Malvadan Kick” for failing nerves, apples and cheese cut up in a spell-painted cool box, a handkerchief, and a bouquet of early chive heads. The mirror and Esher endured Mara’s rehearsal of explanation before she spent an hour selecting her best “dressed up enough to convey seriousness but not festival garb” frock and waistcoat (the least-wrinkled garments in Mara’s wardrobe, her leavings scattered across her bed for later tidying). She even braided and pinned her waist-long hair, although the immediate reappearance of flyaway strands suggests she’d have more profitably spent the time wielding a darning needle.
What else does a woman need arrange for the “I love you but not quite the way you think” conversation?
Why didn’t she ask more questions of Aunt Rosie? Her advice will be more useful than dresses, braids and a picnic basket!
Mara sighs, breathing in lanolin and dust as she passes the empty yards on the track out to the schoolhouse and cemetery. She must do this. Doesn’t she want to stop hiding? Doesn’t she want to stop bowing to the strict rhythms of an alien life?
Overhead, a kite soars into the limitless blue.
If it goes badly, she owns no end of yellow plain over which to run.
She meets the first lot of returning students halfway, a pair of boys kicking a ball while taking surreptitious looks at a trio of girls walking a few paces behind. Mara waves, smiles and ignores the snickering girl—one of Isa’s grandchildren—who comments, loudly, on the behaviours to be carried out between her teacher and the woman walking to meet her. Mara can speak to Isa, of course; she can also do nothing. One day, the girl will have something personal to discuss with a witch; her terror then should serve as punishment! Besides, didn’t Mara make similar comments about Teacher Evins’s husband? Was her childhood conduct so beyond reproach?
Esher and Lis, likely, wouldn’t have beat each other up as often or as soundly if Mara hadn’t screeched her humiliation and indignation whenever they took up sticks or ropes. What youth doesn’t enjoy the show of her friends’ sympathy? What pair of youths don’t revel in the gift of an audience? Maybe she owes Esher an apology, given that he never voiced embarrassment over Mara’s disorganised ways. He just ensured they both arrived at school with the requisite number of books, papers, slates and pencils until, even if tidiness became an unconquerable mountain, she learnt to remember to look for her belongings.
In those days, she dwelt in the centre of her knot of friends; now Mara lingers on the edges. She burnt a few bridges with some girls’ hurt at Mara’s losing interest in their friendships become romances, but the best part of her distance comes from the bridges unbuilt—from lives now focused on marriage, home and children. Malice doesn’t have to shut her out of other people’s worlds; a lack of connection and reciprocation, the girl become the woman who remains with nobody, serves just as admirably.
She wants some of those things and is amenable to others, but how does she gain them when she can’t master the first step in the process, courting?
“Please,” she whispers, knowing the Sojourner cares nothing for how eir worshippers comport themselves in relationships or families. “Please. I can’t lose her.”
Saluria and Sillemon push their magic deeper into Mara’s skin, warming her against a cold sweat at odds with the spring afternoon, but they too offer no wisdom.
Her pace slows as she approaches the schoolhouse. The cemetery’s sheltering glade of gums reaches out to cradle the schoolhouse’s weathered mud-brick walls, children and the dead enjoying the closest thing the Great Southern Plain offers to bush. A gumnut-strewn clearing between the track and the front steps allows for games, and for a moment Mara feels again a child, half-expecting to see Rachel walking beside her while Esher and Lis trail behind. Does only adulthood’s wistfulness make Mara think those days simpler? Did her childish agonies and confusions, resolved or survived, truly feel easier than her current pains and complications?
She now knows herself. She now knows she isn’t and wasn’t alone. Can’t she hold onto that truth in facing this latest difficulty?
No matter what happens, she’ll always have her brother.
She shakes her head and takes the steps up into the cloakroom, a bare hall of hooks and benches, now housing three cupboards at one end and a box of balls and bats at the other. The same scent stings her nose: a mingling of leather, eucalyptus, dust, sweat and something Mara can only name “childhood”. It smells like a kind of freedom, a world penned in by adults but free of adult responsibility—free, but not free. Is that so markedly different from the grind of adulthood—free, but not free?
No! Stop pondering the irrelevant and the unsolvable! Have courage, she tells herself, and knock on the doorframe!
The main room shows itself a shrine to Benjamin’s inquisitive nature: shelves by the door bow under the weight of too many books, potted bean plants sprout on the east-facing windowsill and chains of sun-faded looped paper hang over the blackboard. A collection of pencils and pens sit in a jar on the teacher’s desk beside another holding fresh strands of bracken fern; more jars line the west-facing windowsills, filled with feathery grass heads and clusters of gumnuts. A basket of small fidgets—wooden puzzle toys, faded fabric bags filled with beans, small leather balls, scraps of fabric embroidered with spells to hold scent—sits on the desk’s corner, awaiting any soul in need. Teacher Evins permitted no fancies or decorations, but now the blackboard bears a collection of sketches—animals, plants, a multitude of stick figures—wrought by several hands.
Uncle Sascha and Ida Fisher mutter that Teacher Lisbet misuses paper and chalk, deviates from prescribed lessons and encourages an unwanted directness in her students, but Mara has never heard Reggie, Mistress Hayes or the students utter complaint.
Two columns of desks and benches, marked with scuffs from generations of heels and pens, sit before the teacher’s desk with its ladder-back chair. Strings of dead witchlights, Mara’s own work, hang from the rafters. A well-blacked stove crouches by the window, also dead, for while Benjamin likes her tea, the warm room needs no additional heating.
Free of students to whisper, tap and scratch, Mara feels as though she’s stepped into a monastery—a house solemnly but joyfully revering the cause of education.
“If Lis had been allowed to draw on the board as a reward,” she says as Benjamin looks up from her desk, “I think he’d have copied from Esh a little less often.”
Benjamin breaks into a broad smile, likely less from Mara’s comment than her unexpected presence, and leaps from her chair with knee-banging enthusiasm. On school days, she wears a staid floral-print frock and a plain worsted coat, a brown belt buckled over all to bear sundry leather purses and pouches of mixed sizes and colours. Neat and sensible enough, even if Benjamin wears too few petticoats and hems her skirts too high to be described as “demure”—but who, she asked in hand-flapping annoyance after Ida’s latest comment, likes always treading on one’s skirts? I don’t want to fall over!
They’re still not short enough to show more of Benjamin’s legs than her blue-witched boots, more’s the pity.
“I don’t know him well enough to say anything.” Her brow creases into a frown deep enough to bunch the freckles on her forehead as she waves a hand at the board. “Expression is important. It isn’t just hearing lessons and giving tests. Otherwise, you could put a cat on the desk and there wouldn’t be much difference, would there?”
Mara, struck by an image of Pa’s cat Sooty placing inked pawprints to grade student compositions, can’t help a nervousness-fuelled giggle. “Can you imagine how Sascha or Ned would react to a cat teaching?”
“I think it depends,” Benjamin says, her head resting to one side like a roosting bird, “on what a cat’s teaching is. If teaching the way we reckon it presupposes sapience—remembering that cats do teach! Most mammalian adults show their young how to carry out survival behaviours. Are we imagining, then, cats teaching as I teach or as cats teach?” She speaks at volume, as though an instructor before her class, and her words quicken in her enthusiasm. “If the former, but presupposing sapience, I can’t begin to guess what qualities feline sapience should possess … although my sister did say, once, that I was more like a cat than a person. I think that less a comment about feline sapience than her … her beliefs. Perhaps I should have said a brick, an inanimate object, still presuming a lack of sapience…”
If any woman exists that should have sustained Mara’s romantic love, surely she is Benjamin Lisbet?
On an ordinary day, Mara will offer her thoughts on what may constitute feline sapience and begin an unwieldy conversation that ends up at an unexpected destination with no conclusion—two women talking for the joy of pondering, revelling in an exploration unsanctioned in a society that minimises the bewildering.
Instead, she watches the flicker of confusion shift Benjamin’s brow and lips as she works to hide her consternation at the unusual hesitation.
“Is this a good time to have a serious conversation about our relationship?” Mara reaches into the basket and holds out the bouquet of chives, the clusters of mauve star-shaped flowers lightly damaged by her basket-swinging walk. “About what we feel, what we need from each other?”
Inflorescence, Benjamin said: the word describing a cluster of flowers attached to a main stem. Mother Hayes taught Mara to grow chives, in and out of season, for their uses in protecting surrounding herbs from pests and diseases. Benjamin, though, gave her the academic language used to describe the parts and structures of the plants Mara uses and tends.
Benjamin straightens her papers, aligning the pile to the base of her pencil jar. “Thank you for not just saying ‘can we talk’,” she murmurs at the desk—but for the life of her, Mara can’t think of a gentler way to broach this. “I can talk with you now. Can we go outside? I’ve been inside nearly all day.”
What does someone think when the woman she’s courting edges back after displaying abundant enthusiasm? Nothing good, by the metric of Mara’s failed relationships. Her history of inducing uncomfortable conversations with a lover, however, provides no successful dress rehearsal; neither does last night’s conversations with Aunt Rosie and Esher.
“Outside. Of course.” Mara nods. “These are for you. Would you like me to leave them on your desk?”
“Oh, no. The students will make much of it. They don’t need excuses to whisper while I take the other classes.” Benjamin shakes her head and stoops to pick up her satchel and parasol, slinging the former over her shoulder and hooking the latter over her forearm. She does, though, take the bouquet from Mara’s hand. “Thank you.”
She doesn’t look at the flowers, letting them hang by her side as far away from her face as her hand can reach.
“Don’t you like chives?” Mara asks, baffled that the woman who picks weeds and ferns to display in jars on the windowsill of her boarding-house room seems so uninterested.
Benjamin jerks the bouquet-holding hand and ushers Mara towards the door, plucking the heavy iron key from one of her many pouches. “I don’t dislike chives. I…” She hesitates, her chin and brow stiff, her words tense and careful—like someone’s forcing her to read aloud her personal diary. “The last woman I bedded gave me tulips tied with a bow. Then she used pretty words to explain that she didn’t think she could court me, but she’d like to stay my friend and in my bed. She wasn’t the first to do this … trick. I suppose this is that, also?”
Mara meant to reassure Benjamin through a gesture of intimacy: chives should show affection and recognition for her love of untraditional decorative plants without suggesting an inconvenient romantic symbolism.
Now, that simple bouquet resembles the gift meant to mollify another in the face of hard revelations: a touch of manipulation the speaker hopes eases a difficult process.
Which is, come to think of it, exactly their purpose.
“No!” Mara, panicked, halts on the doorstep while Benjamin turns the key, staring out at the copse of trees—thin in daylight, fresh blue sky and dry yellow-green grass peeking between the scrubby boughs. “I don’t love you the way I used to, not the way you think I do, not the way I want—wanted—to love you. I don’t love you romantically. I can’t. So I need to find out if … if loving you in other ways is enough.”
Odd how night lends the illusion of depth and distance; sunlight, bright and hard, strips the world of its fantasies, both comforting and frightening. The dark feels more dangerous, pregnant with unseen possibility, but the day holds greater, more obvious cruelty.
Mara sees that truth, again, in the flaring of Benjamin’s ire.
She pushes past Mara, stomping her way down the steps—something Mara usually takes less as anger and more as Benjamin’s need for the slap of leather soles against wood. “She said that! Is it enough if she loves me as a friend? Until she finds another girl to love, she means but doesn’t say?”
The terrific scowl scrunching her face says otherwise: never has Mara head Benjamin sound so harsh, brittle or cutting.
“I didn’t mean—”
Despite the heat of the sun and Benjamin’s pale, burn-prone skin, she doesn’t open the parasol; she waves it in her hand, reminding Mara of Esher’s pokers. “She loves me, she truly loves me, but not enough to court me! And they all think I won’t find out what they’re about when they walk out with other girls but spend evenings with me!”
Benjamin doesn’t speak with directness about her previous post on the Stormcoast. She’ll talk about books or pets, festivals or holidays; she’ll make occasional reference to her kin. But, just as Benjamin never asks Mara about her previous partners or how those relationships ended, she doesn’t volunteer her own history. That doesn’t mean Mara, happy to dodge such discussions, hasn’t gleaned hints enough for a guess or two. A woman who hadn’t spent the last few seasons focused on her own perceived failings, however, might have pondered Benjamin’s willingness to oblige Mara’s unrequested avoidance of personal subjects.
In so long fearing her inability to stay in love, she has donned fear’s cloaking veil of abstraction and self-obsession.
“I thought it’d be better with you! With your fathers, with your brother! With your not hiding it! That I can just be … me, because you know what it means to treat people as their own person, not as a category from which unacceptable deviation is tolerable only for fucking!” Benjamin whips the parasol through the air, less intentional movement and more the consequence of a parasol-holding woman jerking her arms in distress—but Mara trails behind for safety as Benjamin heads for the trees growing around the fallen-down cemetery fence. “I thought it’d be better with you!”
It isn’t you, it’s me? Truth, but also perhaps a line delivered by women trying to sheath their cruelty and disregard in an illusion of gentleness.
“I want to be with you,” Mara cries, her boots crunching on gumnuts and fallen leaves. “I want to be with you. I want to bed you—shades, I desperately want to bed you—”
“So did they!” Benjamin shouts as she jumps over the fallen stone wall. The tip of the closed parasol scrapes against hanging branches as she lands; a clump of leaves flutter to the ground. “They all wanted that! Bed and avoiding conversations! I thought it was different that you didn’t try sex first!”
Mara picks her way through the fallen stones, hidden by clumps of bleached grass, and follows Benjamin into the graveyard. She isn’t running away as much as moving with her anger—Esher and Pa are prone to hurting themselves in anger or distress if confined or constrained—but for a moment Mara wants nothing more than for Benjamin to just stand still!
“And I want to stay with you … live with you, if you want that! I’m just … I don’t love you romantically, because I can’t stay in love with people. I love you; I’m not in love with you! I’m scared I’m not enough for you, if I stop pretending that I love you romantically. And…” Mara gulps, swinging her basket almost as wildly as Benjamin her parasol; the bottle slips and clinks against the wicker. “You’re saying something like that, aren’t you?”
Benjamin, standing by Eldest Ned’s lichen-festooned headstone, wheels about to face Mara.
She jerks backwards, narrowly missing impalement. “Please—”
“What do you mean? Romantically?” Benjamin stomps her left foot above the approximate location of Ned’s skull, should the distance between grave and headstone remain unchanged over the last three generations of burials. “I thought you wouldn’t do this, take something and shred it into pieces I can’t even see! I thought you wouldn’t use the bits I don’t understand to tell me I’m not enough!”
For a moment she stands, her chin high, her cheeks flushed, her parasol raised in the very picture of indignant outrage—before she slumps to the ground in a billowing mound of skirts, sobbing with a gasping, shoulder-jerking desperation.