Summary: Lovers’ Day is good trading for a witch who deals in enchantments, ribbons and dyed flowers. For Mara Hill, it’s long been a holiday of tedious assumptions and painful conversations–once best handled by casting petty curses on annoying customers. This year, when a girl asks about love spells, it may be time to instead channel a little Aunt Rosie.
Theme: A sapphic, allosexual, lithromantic trans witch in a sexual queerplatonic relationship enduring the most amatonormative holiday–in a small town still in desperate want of open conversations about aromanticism.
Word length: 2, 991 words.
Content advisory: Much of this piece concerns the amatonormativity surrounding a real-world holiday, because unsubtle allegory is a wonderful thing. Please note that this story also includes a non-specific reference to an off-screen character’s suicide attempt and the ableism of the way people talk around mental illness. A character also uses the phrase “kill me” where we’d would use something like “fuck me” in keeping with the Sojourner’s followers’ regard of death. While I don’t explain it in text, it’s meant to be unholy awkward in keeping with the above. Dead Horse Hill’s religion is terrible at reconciling suicide with the way it frames and refers to death, and Esher talks more about this in the sequel to Love is the Reckoning.
Setting: A year and a half after The Sorcerous Compendium of Postmortem Query and a year before Love is the Reckoning. It is readable if you haven’t read Reckoning, but I do suggest reading Query first. I spend little time rehashing the story of the night that Mara learnt about aromanticism from her great-aunt’s shade. It’s also worth noting, if you haven’t read Reckoning, that Mara did use her sorcery at Sirenne to enable her brother’s medical/physical transition without first asking Esher about it, because that would mean revealing the whole becoming-a-necromancer thing.
Note the first: I had two days to write and attempt to edit this, between the pressures of real life and the want to post something aromantic-themed on Valentine’s Day. So here’s another pre-emptively posted story I mean to come back and polish later.
It’s a terrific exercise in redundancy, but some people find the words “no love spells” to be a bewildering subtlety.
Late summer is the best time of year for a witch to make her living. True, Mara Hill renews cooling spells and hangs witchlights for festivals year-round; she never lacks for work as Dead Horse Hill’s unofficial midwife and herbalist. Now, as the season creeps towards That Day, the bell above her door rings almost constantly with folk entering her workshop. Where people put off renewing a degrading cool-box spell and grumble over the cost of lighting, they spend a few weeks each year almost throwing money at Mara for objects and spells that are ephemeral, pretty and functionless.
“Hey, Mara! I want rainbow-coloured roses. A bunch of them.” Lis Sascha, Mara’s cousin and, in her opinion, the heir to a long line of insufferable meddlers, bounds into the shop, shouting his request heedless of Mara’s ears. He smells of sheep and wears a short-sleeved shirt over smudged tan trousers, grinning with a broad-lipped, gap-toothed enthusiasm. “Can you tie them in a bow? And make the ribbon change colours?”
Rainbow flowers require more dye and time in the preparation than magic, although Mara suspects she made a mistake in offering them: they’ve become much too popular. She pulls out her order book, scans the page as though she doesn’t know exactly what’s been asked of her and frowns. “I am busy, but I think I can squeeze you in. For family. Seven fifty, because you want roses.”
She didn’t expect to ply her sorcery on gardening over necromancy, but Mara has spent the last few months putting her demons Saluria and Sillemon to work on a small yard crammed with assorted out-of-season herbs and flowers. Planting seeds and watering seedlings is cheaper, if more involved, than ordering preserved roses from Malvade, where magic workers charge wondrous amounts of money for the frivolousness of Old World flowers in unnatural colours.
She staked ward spells around her garden to stop schoolchildren from climbing over the wall to nick her daisies.
“Don’t come to me a week before, Lis.”
Lis grumbles, but he pulls out his wallet. “Seven fifty’s bloody steep, Mara.”
“A week,” Mara says, closing the book and taking the money. “Pick up the afternoon before. If you come around in the morning like Hettie did year before last, I’ll do what I did to her.”
“Her wife was so mad that you gave her green hair for Lovers’ Day.”
It was a sickly, pond-scum green that looked terrible against Hettie’s sallow skin, but Mara tries not to flinch at Lis’s mention of That Day. “Don’t come around early. And if you really love a woman, you’ll love her green hair, too.”
“Rachel will kill me.” Lis shudders with too much vehemence for anything but drama and flashes another grin at Mara. “You hear from Esh? He’s been gone for so long.”
Her brother Esher will be spending That Day in the company of two dogs, two horses, a lonely mountain valley, many cattle and one other drover—according to a note that sounded obnoxiously gleeful at the prospect. Mara did suggest to Benjamin that they take Olive on their first trip as a family somewhere lonesome and quiet. Benjamin observed, without too much rancour, that Mara spent last year at Sirenne and they can’t afford to miss this year’s holiday earnings as well.
“He’s still droving.” Mara coughs, trying to clear the heaviness in her chest. “He’s got a wolfhound, now. Esh says that however big we think the dog is, Bill’s bigger.”
“A dog? He hasn’t met someone yet?”
Mara sighs. Not only do people in romantic relationships spend That Day displaying their affection for all to see, they assume that everyone else is either caught up in a similar romantic haze or hoping to be amongst the ranks of the gleefully partnered. “I never saw Esh as wanting to,” she says, not sure if Esher had the “I’m not interested in romance” conversation with Lis and not wishing to out him if he hasn’t. “He’s happy. He has two dogs and countless cows that don’t try to talk to him.”
“He can’t be happy if he’s alone.”
Oh, the urge to roll her eyes, draw on her demons and do something to ruin Lis’s sable hair! “Esh attempted suicide while living in a village surrounded by family.” She tries not to sound too acidic; she doubts she succeeds. “How’s a partner going to make any difference to his sanity when he doesn’t care about having one? And if it were, don’t you think the priests would’ve mentioned it?”
The priest who took charge of Esher’s care, Moll, never said a word about partners, romantic or otherwise. They just asked why Mara accompanied Esher and, later, showed Mara Sirenne’s library: an astonishing selection of tomes by priests and healers, mostly based in the East, that not only treat the many shapes of romantic attraction as a normal human experience but assign them words.
Moll wouldn’t let her take home the book discussing lithromanticism, but they did have an initiate copy out as many pages as Mara wanted.
Lis blinks, his lips parted. Mara isn’t sure if he lacks a counter argument or if he’s startled into silence by her use of the word Dead Horse Hill goes to absurd lengths to avoid speaking. “I … yes. So, what are you doing for Benjamin this year? Do you have special spells you save for her?” Lis leans over the redgum counter to nudge Mara in the arm. “A witch like you must have something really good for her on Lovers’ Day.”
In case the words and gesture weren’t obvious enough, he winks.
Rachel won’t be too mad if Mara locks Lis in the broom cupboard for a while, not if she lets him out in time for tea. Uncle Sascha, though, will let Pa and Da have it over any insult done to his favourite son. Mara doesn’t much care what Sascha does to her, but Da doesn’t cope well with Sascha on a good day.
Why, of all subjects, did he ask that?
“Yes.” Mara speaks as flatly as she can. “I have something amazing and you’re never going to know what it is.”
Lis blinks. “I was just asking, Mara.”
That’s the problem, Mara thinks. People ask these sorts of questions, innocent but still trying to shove her, her love and her relationships into a box they don’t fit. People don’t understand the pain of that shoving—and even though Mara now knows that a good number of folks don’t dance to romance’s song, much of the world still behaves as though everyone knows the steps and yearns to pirouette.
Benjamin loves Mara this way, romantically; Mara doesn’t mind when free of the pressure to return it herself. That afternoon in the schoolhouse was no easy conversation, but it inspired several since—real discussions about love, relationships, what they want and need from the other, what they can and can’t give to the other. They asked questions and shattered assumptions in their wake, and Mara didn’t know that she’d spent a lifetime wanting this, a relationship where she can lay her feelings on the table and have someone else return to her the same honesty and clarity.
She isn’t in love with Benjamin, not the way the world praises and prizes as its ultimate form, but as she told Great Aunt Rosie last year, this feels better for her.
She does mind, though, that everyone else thinks her sexual intimacy with Benjamin must also be romantic.
“I know. Rainbow roses, colour-changing ribbon. I’ll get it done, Lis.”
Lis looks for a moment as though he’s about to speak, but then he jerks a nod. “See you around—”
The bell rings again as her door opens, letting in another gush of warm, grass-scented air: one of the new Miller girls, the eldest one. Abelia. She wears her blonde hair coiled around her head in the city fashion and floral-sprigged skirts a little too long for ease of walking, although Mara acknowledges that there’s something winsome in the way she holds up said skirts, accidentally offering a flash of leg above her leather slippers.
Benjamin, yesterday, ranted about people who spend too much time flirting in the classroom and not enough time on their spelling. I’m all for a good flirt, she said while Mara grinned at finding a boon companion in her dislike of That Day and Benjamin’s own tendency to outrageous flirting, but can the students keep it outside the classroom?
Only a week longer, Mara thinks, and then the world can return to its regularly-scheduled degree of romantic omnipresence.
“Mistress Hill.” Abelia Miller bobs an unnecessary curtesy, flashing a wry smile. “May I see your selection of love spells? There’s a cute boy in school and—”
“Kill me,” Lis mutters, not quite under his breath.
Mara, unable to find any string of words that stand a chance of emerging as comprehensible language, points at the door. “Out.”
Mara folds her arms. “Out.”
Abelia’s cheeks flush scarlet. “I just want to buy something from you! I’m telling Father! I’m telling everyone how you treated me!”
“Do that,” Mara says with the supreme confidence of being the only practicing witch in Dead Horse Hill. “Out.”
Lis heaves a sigh. “Mistress, just … read the sign beside the door.” He smiles at the girl and then, showing the only hint of sense Mara has seen from him in weeks, beats a hasty exit. “Rainbow roses, Mara!”
The girl looks at Mara, gulps and then lunges for the door behind Lis, the bell ringing wildly as the door slams shut behind them. Mara shakes her head and then, burning with curiosity, rounds the counter and crosses the small room to the six-paned window beside the door, trying to stand on the side so she can’t be seen from the street. Sun-faded miscellanea form the display under the window—bunches of herbs, an unused mortar and pestle, a vase of wilting rainbow-dyed daisies that Mara should replace with fresher, a small cold box containing a half-empty bottle of milk and an apple.
Outside, Lis walks towards the tavern. The Miller girl stands beside the closed door, frowning, before leaning down to grab a torn piece of paper from the ground.
Mara’s own handwriting forms one sentence in black ink: absolutely no love spells under any circumstances.
It’s a terrific exercise in redundancy, but some people find the words “no love spells” to be a bewildering subtlety.
“Oh, shades!” Mara sighs and considers going outside, apologising and pinning the sheet back up on the wall with every drawing pin lurking in her desk drawer. She can also retreat to her counter and write Lis’s request in her book, knowing Dead Horse Hill will talk but it will pass. Why not just tell Benjamin, later, to have another lesson on the Accords and consent-violating magic?
That, of course, leads Mara into a disaster of hypocrisy, as much as she wants to think that love spells aimed at fellow students and transition magic for a sibling who did want and need to change his body are two different creatures.
She sighs again, unable to shake the feeling of duplicity. Mara was once a woman who wanted to witch herself into a kind of love she can’t maintain. A woman who sold her soul to demons and tried to raise the shade of her long-dead great-aunt because of that want. A woman who may not have found happiness without a ghost offering explanation and validation.
Aunt Rosie isn’t the easiest of conversational partners in life or death, but she gave Mara the knowledge and reassurance she needed, not the solution she thought she wanted.
Mara barges out the door and into the street, chasing after the spectre of straw-coloured hair and pink floral-patterned skirts. “Wait! Wait!”
Abelia jerks and turns. “What?”
Her fingers clench tight around the crumpled paper.
Mara coughs, struggling to get her breath: it’s harder, these days, to run like she once did. “Why do you want a love spell? To make a boy be with you on That—on Lovers’ Day? So you won’t be alone, because … because you’re supposed to have a partner for what the world thinks shows romance, and if you don’t … they look at you with that pity? Asking you when you’re going to find someone? Reassuring you that you’ll have someone next time or—when I was older, telling me how to find someone because my life is a tragedy without a partner? Is that it?”
Tears trickle down Abelia’s flushed cheeks. “I’m not—my sister, she has a girl, and she said—”
Mara can’t imagine what it feels like to have a sibling engaged in the love she’s supposed to find; Esher’s lack of interest was always something of a relief to Mara, offering no comparative demonstration of the way she’s supposed to be. Now, she guesses, it may be more the other way around. Is that one of the many reasons he never speaks of returning to Dead Horse Hill?
Not as big a reason as the way his kin and countrymen speak of his illness, but a reason.
“Come with me,” Mara says softly, gesturing back towards the shop. “I’ll tell you about my brother, who never wants a partner, and my aunt, who never married. And I’ll show you how to make rainbow flowers, if you promise not to tell anyone else, so you can go to school on Lovers’ Day wearing a crown of flowers and watch everyone wonder who got you so many.” She tries to smile as gently as she can. “It’s not a terrible thing to be unpartnered. It’s only terrible because the world says we shouldn’t be. Come, please.”
Abelia wavers and sniffs, wiping her sleeve over her face. “My sister won’t stop talking about her girl and everything she’s doing. And school is as bad. Everyone’s planning and I’ll have to walk home alone.”
People, Mara thinks, both impossible to be around while insisting that sanity and worth demands their close presence—but that’s the catch, isn’t it? If one fits in, like Lis does, there’s no enduring required, just the comfort of companions with similar experiences and values who can’t imagine that others should feel any differently.
She turns back towards the shop; Abelia falls in step beside her. “Then walk home with Benjamin. Reggie’s coming to tea. We’re going to play games, eat cake and write my brother in my mirror journal. If you don’t mind not knowing anyone, and Olive poking at your skirts, you’re welcome. I know it isn’t what … what you’re supposed to want, but it’s better than forcing someone to feel something false just to fit in. You know it won’t be real.” She hesitates, holding open the door; the girl darts inside, perhaps hoping that nobody sees her tearstained face out in the street. Mara turns around the “open” sign and locks the door. “The problem isn’t that you don’t have someone. The problem is that the world won’t allow you to not have someone—someone in a very specific, romantic way. And there’s a day all about celebrating that, a day that doesn’t include the rest of us.”
Abelia’s lips tremble; new tears splash onto her chin and trickle onto the bodice of her dress. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry. I just…”
Mara reaches into the window display and pulls out the apple and the jug of milk. A box under the counter holds mugs and a few utensils saved for food preparation; she pours the mugs, slices the apple and sits down on the floor with her impromptu picnic. “I hate love spells,” she says, trying her hardest to sound conversational. “I wanted one to change me, a couple of years ago, because I thought I couldn’t love my wife enough if it wasn’t romantic.”
Abelia blows her nose on her sleeve and sits opposite Mara. “You don’t love your wife?”
Maybe the girl is aromantic kin, her flirting the desperation of Abelia’s trying to force herself into a mould she doesn’t fit. Maybe she isn’t, just caught up in the expectations That Day brings to the surface about love and relationships, a set of rules that does nobody any kindness. Maybe it doesn’t matter, if more people come to understand that the flowers and gifts of one heavy, frustrating day so often leave a desperate girl asking for a love spell.
People put too much weight on the performance of this one day when love is too diverse, unique and optional to be so constrained.
“I love her.” Mara reaches for an apple slice. “I’m not in love with her. I didn’t need a spell to make me something I’m not just to fit in. Neither do you.”
She just needed an aunt to tell her that the lithromantic Mara Hill can and should exist.
Abelia frowns and nods. “I don’t think I understand.”
Love, Mara thinks, is a woman who realises that Lovers’ Day will be most comfortably spent with an unpartnered friend and, through the pages of the magical mirror journal, Mara’s aromantic brother. Love is a day spent with the people she loves who don’t fit into the romantic rhythms of the world and the people who love Mara so much that her inability to stay in love doesn’t matter. Love is their allowing her to hide as best as possible from a painful holiday. Love is an invitation offered up to anyone else who needs safe harbour.
She takes a bite of apple and starts to explain the woman who, not so long ago, so feared her own shape of being that she sought to erase it.
Aunt Rosie won’t be walking the earth tonight, but Mara doesn’t doubt that she’ll approve.