"And as they linked hands they knew that they would be happy together for the rest of their days. The end. "
Sophie closed the book with a satisfied thump. "And now," she gave her sisters an authoritative glare, "it's time for bed." It had only been a month or so that Sophie had been given the responsibility of reading bedtime stories; long enough that she'd realized she quite liked bossing her sisters about and not nearly long enough for the novelty to wear off.
"Do we have to? " said Martha. Her pleading eyes would work on their father, but Sophie had resolved not to be swayed.
"No," she said. "You each got one story and that's it." She had been sitting on the edge of Martha's bed and now she stood up, dislodging the blue quilt on her lap, ready to return to her own room.
"But--" Martha began.
"Sophie," Lettie interrupted firmly, in the tone of voice that suggested she was going to be too bold for her own good. "Why is it only princes and princesses who run off together?" At least it wasn’t a quarrel about her fate as a middle sister this time.
"Because people write stories about princes and princesses," Sophie said, beginning to get cross at having her authority challenged. "Anyway, that last one was about a woodcutter and a blacksmith's daughter."
"Yeah, Lettie ," Martha taunted. "Didn't you listen?"
Lettie rolled her eyes. "That's not the point," she insisted. "It doesn't matter what jobs they have. Why aren't the stories ever about girls and girls or boys and boys?"
Sophie sighed. It was clear that Lettie just wanted to stay up later, and was fashioning an argument to distract her. "I don't know," she said. "It's not how the stories go. Now--"
"Why not?" Lettie demanded.
Sophie didn't know. She'd wondered, but it hadn't seemed like the sort of thing she ought to ask. Stories told you how the world worked, and what might happen to you because of it, and they had all told Sophie it was no good questioning them because she'd end up with a worse lot than she was already guaranteed. "Because that's not what people do, " she said, knowing that if she went into it further, Lettie would be getting exactly what she wanted. Besides, she didn’t have an answer and felt uneasily as though they shouldn’t be talking about this at all.
"Of course they do," Lettie argued. "Besides, these stories would have me believe that I could fall in love with a frog who only later turns out to be a prince, but couldn't love a girl at all.”
"That’s enough for tonight, Lettie.”
Lettie glared. Sophie got the uncomfortable feeling that she was being sized up. She stuck out her chin and tried to look intimidating.
“I wouldn’t marry a frog,” Martha said. “Even if I am the youngest. Frogs are gross.”
“Well I would marry a girl,” Lettie said. “No matter what anybody says.”
“You’re not marrying anybody tonight,” Sophie said, quite sure that Lettie should not be allowed to run off with a princess if it could possibly be helped.
And then Sophie saw the moment when Lettie decided to try a different strategy. Her stern stare folded into a sharp smile, and she began twisting a curl around one finger. "You'd run off with a princess, wouldn't you, Sophie?"
Something in Sophie's chest squeezed tight. "No," she said.
"Sure you would," said Lettie. "What about the one you do Maths with, who's always wearing yellow?"
“Anya,” Sophie said automatically. She was clever with numbers where Sophie was good with stories, and they had spent the last year helping each other with assignments. Sophie had, on more than one occasion, watched her deft, dark hands writing and thought that whoever she found while seeking her fortune would be incredibly lucky. But that was a far cry from... whatever Lettie was implying. It didn’t mean anything.
"I wouldn't run off with anybody," Sophie said. Her face felt hot suddenly.
"Alright, but if you weren't the eldest, and Anya completed a quest for you and asked you--”
“Go to bed.” Sophie snapped. “I mean it. It’s late.”
“See?” Lettie slid off the side of Martha’s bed and padded over to her own. “I knew it.”
“You don’t know anything,” said Sophie. “Good night. ” She grabbed her book and closed the door tightly behind her, not quickly enough to hear the rapid whispering that started up as soon as she was out of sight.
Sophie pressed the book to her chest and told herself it was stupid to be upset about it. Lettie and Martha were just trying to cause trouble and they were good at it.
There was no sense in dwelling on any part of Lettie’s scenario. It wasn’t going to happen. Sophie was going to settle down with a nice boy and that would be that. And boys were nice; there was no point in looking the other way.
She stayed up late that night reading. Every story ended nearly the same way, and that was as it should be.
Working in the hat shop gave Sophie far too much time to think. Sometimes difficult pleats or unusual fabrics could hold her focus, but too often the sewing and shaping was simply routine and she had to think about
The problem was that very few of her thoughts actually made the time pass more quickly. Sometimes she thought about her sisters, off doing quite well for themselves, and that would cheer her until she began thinking about how long it had been since she'd seen them, and how exciting their new lives must be. Sometimes she thought of her father, and that left her feeling restless and melancholy. Every now and then she'd try to think of inventive new styles of hats, but there was only so much variation a hat could go through before it stopped being respectable altogether.
There were other thoughts, ones that had an irritating tendency to come back after Sophie had thought she'd sorted them out for good. They had to do with Lettie coming out as a lesbian several years back, and giving a whole presentation on terms and definitions with a stern-jawed determination that Sophie suspected was covering up her fear. She and Martha and Father and Fanny had listened intently and asked a few questions and nodded, and Lettie had
It wasn't so surprising, really, Sophie thought. Lettie had always been the sort to defy expectations. Then a year ago she'd come out again, as pansexual this time, and Sophie kept
There was a game she played with herself sometimes. She would look at the young women and the young men that came through the door of the shop and try to imagine which of those Lettie might find attractive. Would she like the stern line of that woman's forehead, or the quirked nose on that man? At first she told herself she was being helpful and looking for a partner for Lettie, but soon even she had to admit that wasn't true at all. She didn't even have a firm understanding of Lettie's type. The worst of it was, she had an uneasy feeling of what she was actually looking for.
"Well it's no good me getting infatuated with anybody," she decided, trimming a red sunhat with fake poppies. "I'm the eldest. If someone comes along who's interested in me, that will be that. In fact it's far more likely I'll end up an old woman living alone, and there's nothing wrong with that." As long as she didn't end up terribly cursed, Sophie didn't think she'd mind living alone. "Maybe I'll find a pet, a nice cat, or someone to share rent on this place," she thought, and was quite satisfied with that conclusion for nearly a month and a half.
"Maybe Lettie has a point," she complained to a bright blue cap. "Maybe I do like women, and anyone else, as much as I like men." She knew the word she'd use for it.
It had been in Lettie's presentation, and she didn't have to worry about Lettie getting precious with her own label. But she didn't quite dare say it. "It doesn't matter, really," she decided. "It's not as though it's going to change my fortune."
"Absolutely not!" she snapped at a shiny black top hat, only two weeks later. "I don't know what I was getting so excited about. I don't like women at all and that's all there is to it." She held onto that thought for a month and a half.
"Maybe it's men I don't like," she grumbled to a heavy woolen hat. "Maybe that's the problem."
It didn't help that the last thing Sophie wanted was for anyone to attempt courting her. "I've no time for that sort of nonsense," she told herself, even as she went out less and less, and the shop hours became more and more tedious.
To make matters worse, half of Market Chipping seemed to be going through similar crises, and gossip always found its way back to the hat shop. Customers talked of neighbors who had suddenly been seen going out with members of their own gender, or told their friends they were considering it. Several people just seemed confused and would whisper questions back and forth between the displays. Not all of these voices were kind (though some certainly were), and Sophie felt a sinking in her stomach whenever someone started up.
"How would I know?" she asked a pale yellow hat, accented with a sprig of forsythia. "I don't suppose there's any way to be certain. Or, I suppose I
be certain if I could be, the way Lettie is."
You sold a hat by leading up to the right one, so that the customer would recognize it immediately. Sophie did not feel as though she was leading up to anything. She felt sometimes like one of the customers who knew which hat they wanted, but wouldn't buy it because of the price or what they thought people would say about the style. They would dither and fret and finally make a second choice that, while being a perfectly nice hat for somebody, simply wasn't them.
Sophie wished she’d never gone into the hat shop in the first place.
Howl was moping and Sophie had no patience for it. He picked up spells and listlessly dropped them again, where they sparked ominously on the workbench or the floor. He went out to the yard and, instead of working on projects, perched on a bit of scrap and moped. He’d been trying to stare dramatically into Calcifer (who stuck out his tongue and called Howl names) when Sophie whacked him with her broom, almost by accident.
“Sophie!” Howl yelped.
“Serves you right for being in the way," Sophie retorted. “And there’s no use getting underfoot about it. If it’s a private problem then you’d better not go making a spectacle out of it, and if you want help you’d better just come out and say it.” She held her broom menacingly, as though she would sweep him right out the door if he so much as sighed again.
Howl gave her a strange look. “It’s about a girl,” he said tragically. “I love her terribly and haven't the faintest idea how to court her. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Oh wouldn’t I?” Sophie said. “I’m attracted to girls too, you know!”
The words were out of her mouth before she realized what she was saying. Sophie clamped her jaw shut and willed her face not to flush, but even as she did, she was suddenly and undeniably certain it was true. What’s more, she realized that she didn’t care.
“And don’t go making a fuss about it, young man,” she told Howl, who closed his mouth abruptly. “It’s not your business what an old woman knows about herself.”
Howl spread his arms dramatically. “For your information,” he said. “ I can be attracted to men. That doesn’t make you special.”
Of all the things Sophie had expected Howl to say, that wasn’t one of them. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “So can I!” She couldn’t think of anything else that would encompass the mix of relief and irritation she felt at the revelation.
She thought she saw Howl smile, for just a moment, before he took on another tragic expression. Perhaps he’s been just as worried about this as I have, she thought, and felt suddenly a sort of kinship with him.
It vanished abruptly as Howl said, “but it’s the courting that’s really causing me trouble, and I don’t imagine you’d know much about that, would you Mrs. Nose?”
Sophie didn’t, but there was no reason for Howl to know that. And it was much easier to imagine herself with anybody, Sophie realized, if she looked at it from the perspective of having done it already. Why, that was seventy years she could have been kissing and courting whoever she wanted! “Young man,” she said sternly. “You don’t get to be my age without making a few women happy.”
“Happy?” said Howl. “You mean to say you didn’t terrorize them the way you terrorize me? What have I done to deserve such cruel treatment?”
Sophie snorted, and was about to tell Howl that he knew exactly what he’d done, when Calcifer popped and fizzled in the grate. "What,” he said. “Are you even fighting about, and do you need to do it over my head?”
“Howl’s being insufferable,” Sophie said, at the same time Howl said, “haven’t you been paying attention?”
Calcifer sighed, a harsh, spitting sound. “You’re enjoying yourselves,” he said. “I can feel it.”
Howl gasped indignantly. “I have never been so insulted.”
“I don’t think you want courting advice from Sophie any more than she wants to give it to you,” Calcifer pointed out.
“You stay out of this,” Sophie snapped, but she supposed Calcifer was right. She didn’t have any advice for courting other than that Howl should, perhaps, take a long break from anything of the kind. She sniffed. “I wouldn’t share my secrets even if you begged.”
“I would expect nothing more,” Howl said tragically, and swept out of the room.
As soon as he was gone, Sophie found she had to sit down. As arguments went, that one had been particularly revealing, and now that she was no longer in the midst of it, Sophie found that she was shaking. “I suppose I’ve just come out,” she said to herself. Secretly she was quite relieved that it hadn’t been the same sort of organized affair as Lettie’s had been. Nor had it been the sort of scandal people whispered about in Market Chipping.
“Come out of what?” said Calcifer who, of course, was still in the grate.
“I’ve never told anyone before,” Sophie admitted. “That I would court men and women and… and anyone, if I wanted. I’ve never been sure, and people do have such opinions about it.”
Calcifer flickered among his logs as he thought this over. “That sounds very human,” he concluded.
“You know,” said Sophie, feeling rather pleased with herself as she settled back in her chair. “I suppose it is."
It had started with two new perfume bottles on the bathroom shelf, which Sophie had called “frivolous” and Howl had called “perfectly reasonable.” Then Sophie had called him “insufferable,” and he’d given her a charming smile and called her a “terror,” and the whole encounter was leading to the point where Sophie wanted to pin him against the wall and kiss him. Howl’s tongue darted out to wet his bottom lip, and Sophie knew that he was expecting the same.
She wasn’t about to make it easy for him, though, so she turned her attention back to her sewing and carried on the argument. There was no reason for anything to go amiss and yet...
“At least I’m honest about my dishonesty,” Howl lamented. “ You spent months living in my house on false pretenses. Maybe nothing you said during that whole, endless summer was the truth.”
“It was,” Sophie said, and something in her chest twisted, something she couldn’t quite name.
“Why, but that could be yet another-”
“It’s not ,” said Sophie. “I have not lied to you about everything.”
“Well,” began Howl.
“ No ,” said Sophie, and resumed her sewing with vigor, no longer in the mood to argue.
Howl didn’t. He motioned dramatically, green silk sleeves flapping, and muttered something about Calcifer not being around when he needed him. Then he took a breath and said “Sophie dear.”
Sophie didn’t answer.
“I know you’re not ignoring me because you’ve run out of insults.”
Sophie snorted. The feeling in her chest had not gone away, and her skin felt tight, the way it used to in the hat shop, the way it still did sometimes when she felt strangers looking at her and seeing someone else. She didn’t know what to do about it.
Howl gave a plaintive sigh and set about starting a fire in the grate. It was warm in the castle, with afternoon sunlight filtering through the windows, so Howl was probably just looking for something to do with his hands.
Sophie felt rather wretched about the whole thing. She ought to try and answer him. It was all well and good to be truly angry with a stranger, or even an acquaintance, but Howl was her
“Don’t think coddling me will do you any good, young man,” she snapped instead.
Howl looked up from the fire, vaguely amused. “All right,” he said.
Sophie frowned. “You’re not slithering out.”
“Yes I am,” Howl said, looking around for the tea. “If I left now, I’d be too afraid to bring this up again, and if I don’t bring it up again you might stop flirting with me all together, and that’s so terrifying it doesn’t bear thinking about. So you see, I’m actually being very cowardly.”
Sophie snorted, louder this time, but she couldn’t help but be somewhat reassured anyway. At last she said, “I may have been lying about my age, but I think I’ve been more honest with you than with anyone else in my life.”
“What poor judgement on your part,” Howl said mildly.
Sophie sewed with renewed vigor.
“But do enlighten me,” Howl said. “So I know what not to tell your sisters.”
Sophie hadn’t know what she was going to say until she was saying it. “I told you I’m…” the word almost got stuck in her throat. “ Bisexual, ” she finished. “And I am. I don’t want to go back to thinking it’s not true.”
“Of course it is,” said Howl. “Am I really the only person you’ve told?”
“Except for Calcifer.”
“And here I thought you were making a reputation for yourself as the mad, queer witch of Ingary.” He raised a hand. “And no, before you have me by the ear, I haven’t mentioned it to anybody, I just think it becomes you.”
“Do you?” Sophie suddenly felt rather foolish. “I don’t suppose it matters now, does it? It feels as though I've gone through an awful lot of work figuring myself out only to go and fall in love with a man anyway."
Howl laughed. It was not a mean laugh, more one of recognition. "Dear Sophie," he said. "I hardly think I count as a man. And anyway," he continued, slipping away before Sophie could ask what that meant. "Do you think either of us could go about falling in love the easy way?"
Sophie had to laugh too, though she tried to hide it in her sewing. It was all a bit ridiculous. "We have gone about it all queer," she said.
Howl stood dramatically and perched himself on the arm of Sophie’s chair. His hair fell softly over his face, and he smelled like hyacinths. “Did you know that rugby teams are always made up of the handsomest men?”
"I can believe you'd say it."
"Present company on an entirely different level, of course." Howl waved his hand dismissively. "Anyway, they are. And that was my albatross to bear for all my many university years."
"What torture," Sophie said dryly.
Howl shot her a look. "And just how," he demanded, "am I supposed to be reassuring when you come back at me with that? I meant that I may have a lovely and stubborn wife, but that doesn't mean the trials of youthful attraction never happened, or that they'll never happen again. I should take you to a game sometime. You can see for yourself.”
“I suppose,” Sophie said, “I might tell my sisters. I don’t think they’ll be terribly surprised. Though Lettie might fight me for the title of queerest witch of Ingary.”
“I think--” Howl began, and slid into Sophie’s lap.
Unfortunately, he had not accounted for her sewing. “Ow!” he cried, jumping off her. “Trying to kill me, are you?”
Sophie fished her needle back and put her project aside. “Perhaps if you had any consideration for other people’s handiwork…” she grumbled, but she was back to feeling rather fond.
“You wound me,” said Howl.
“And you wear too much perfume,” Sophie answered. Then she pulled him close by the fancy ruffles on his jacket and kissed him deeply.
When Howl came into the front room, Sophie was glaring at two books and some parcel paper spread out across the table. Their newest apprentice, a young girl named Ryder who had a nest of black hair and an unfortunate penchant for setting things on fire, sat on the table studying a scrawled spell that Howl had written out for her.
"Howl, are you sure this is all?" Sophie demanded.
"Ah, Sophie," Howl said breezily. "Carrying on a conversation with me while I'm not in the room, just as usual."
Sophie huffed. "All the books left from the collection," she clarified. "I think you've given them all away."
The collection had begun as a series of not-so-subtle gifts from Howl, stories unlike the ones Sophie had read as a child. Stories where people could be anything. Sophie had coveted them for a while, and read them to Calcifer after dark, and to Morgan before bed. Eventually, she'd given one to Michael and Martha when they'd had their first child, and Howl had given some to Mari and Neil, and Sophie had passed one on to a customer, a young man anxious about his destiny, free of charge. She told him it was a book of spells that would change his life and promptly forgotten about it. A year later he was marrying the blacksmith's son and Sophie was invited to the wedding.
And so it had gone on.
Which made Howl not quite unreasonable when he scoffed. "
given them away? With no help from you, I suppose." He arched an eyebrow and, sounding very smug about it, added "what
you want them for, anyway?"
"To give away," Sophie said crossly. "You remember that young librarian from High Norland, don't you? Charmain? She seems like the type to read anything she can get her hands on.” Charmain had struck Sophie as someone who might turn out to be a bit queer, and while bringing it up outright with a near stranger was hardly appropriate, sending her a few books as a thank-you would be a kind gesture regardless.
“You do enjoy meddling,” Howl said, turning one of the books over in his hands. “And if you send these all out, there shall be nothing for us to read around here.”
Sophie grinned and snatched the book out of his hands. “We’ve read all these anyway,” she pointed out. “It might be time for you to buy some new ones.” She began folding the thick paper around the stack.
“And you call me frivolous,” said Howl.
“You are,” said Sophie. “That's why I'm telling you to buy something useful for a change."
Howl laughed. “Point taken.” He kissed the top of her head before flitting back out of the room.
Ryder had been watching them, and now she leaned back on her arms and said, "do you always do that? Look for kids who’re kind of queer, I mean."
"No,” said Sophie. “Now you stop that,” she said to the place where Ryder’s elbow was smoldering on the wrapping paper. The fire went out guiltily.
“Sorry,” said Ryder.
“You’re no worse than Calcifer,” said Sophie, tugging the paper to safety. “And really, he’d insist on eating it all.” She could fold the paper so the burnt bit was mostly hidden. No harm done.
“So how come you know so many of them?” Ryder pressed. “I mean this Charming girl, and that kid Howl keeps buying clothes for who hasn’t got a gender? And like
“ Charmain. And we don’t go looking for them,” Sophie said. “We don’t enchant them. We just… find them.” She supposed if she addressed the package to the Royal Library that Charmain would receive it just fine. She wasn’t entirely sure the Wizard Norland’s house would accept packages without losing them.
“Oh,” said Ryder. Then, “is that why you took me on?”
The ribbon in Sophie’s hands promptly went up in flames.
“Oh!” Sophie cried. “Ah, not quite!” she said to Ryder. “Now
,” she said to the ribbon.
Ryder clapped her hands to her head. “Sorry!”
Sophie got the fire to quiet down, and tossed the sad remains of the ribbon into a bowl to offer to Calcifer later. He’d most likely grumble about being fed scraps, but eat it happily anyway. “If you must know,” Sophie said, “we took you in because you kept setting fire to things.”
“Hah. I guess that makes sense.”
Sophie put the books aside. “Ryder,” she said. “Is there something you’d like to ask me about?”
“Just--” Ryder dragged her hands down her face in a gesture that Sophie was sure she’d gotten from Howl. “How’d you go about making sense of it? Of being, y’know, super powerful and super… queer, I guess.”
Sophie smiled and sat down. “Well,” she said. “Once upon a time I could make no sense of it at all.”