Sunday afternoon. It was Lilé’s favorite time of the week. Church services were over, the shop (both shops, her Grady’s fruit stall and the bakery she worked in) was closed, the crops had been seen to and dinner wouldn’t need to be started for an hour or so yet. Perhaps there were things she could have been doing — heaven knew that Ailís, like all new mothers, was probably completely overwhelmed, and her daughter-in-law Toinette was ready to pop at any moment — but right now, these few hours, they were hers.
So she sat the chess table Finley had gotten for her so many years ago, when they were still in the old country — still courting! Her fingers ran over the rich carvings, silky-smooth from years of careful polishing. To this day she did not know where the table had come from, whether Finley had made it himself or whether he had bought it or whether he had merely absconded with it. Back then — when he had gotten it for her — she had been flattered, amused by his cocky refusal to tell her where it had come from. Now … well, now she just didn’t want to know.
Lilé stared at the board. If she moved the pawn forward–
“Grandma, can ye help me, please?” came the plaintive call.
Lilé put the pawn down. Her invisible opponent would just have to wait. “Of course, Katie,” she said, turning to face her eldest grandchild. “What do you–”
“MA!” The front door of the cottage flew open, and Berach ran inside. “Ma, ye gotta help me!”
“Uncle Berach!” A clatter as something fell to the ground, and Katie was up and running —
But Berach didn’t pause, didn’t even look toward his niece, his beseeching eyes not leaving Lilé’s face.
“Katie!” she snapped, stopping the child in her tracks. “Go upstairs and play with yer brother. Uncle Berach and I have a grown-up matter to talk about.”
Katie pouted, but apparently Lilé’s touch hadn’t left her completely, for soon enough the little girl was climbing the ladder that led up to the second story.
“Now, Berach,” Lilé said, gesturing to the seat across from her, “what do ye need?”
Berach practically fell onto the bench. “Wright help me, Ma, but I don’t know what to do.”
“I gathered that. About what?”
He shifted, and Lilé’s instincts pricked up. He’d always shifted like that when he knew he was about to be in trouble. “Berach?”
“Ma, how — how angry would ye be if there was something I should have told ye but — well — hadn’t?”
“‘Twould depend on what it was,” Lilé replied, eying him narrowly.
“Well — I …” He sighed. “I’ve been — er — paying for … er … pleasure?”
“Seeing a whore?” Lilé asked. Berach nodded, still shifting. “Llamas alive, Berach, ye expect me to be surprised by that? Ye’re –” She bit down on her planned reply, Ye’re too much yer father’s son to do anything else. “Ye’re a healthy young man, ye have urges, it’s only natural.”
Berach only stared at the chessboard. “There’s more.”
Lilé froze. “More?”
“Er — well — she had a kid.” Berach swallowed. “And she said it was mine.”
“Ye can’t believe a woman like that, Berach, if she ain’t lyin’ to ye outright to get yer sympathy, then at best she just doesn’t know –“
“She seemed convincing. And –” He swallowed. “Well — she gave the baby to me, and …” He looked up and tried a shaky smile.
“Tell me,” Lilé forced herself to say, “that ye brought the babe to the nuns.”
Berach shook his head.
“What if she was mine?” Berach protested. “I couldn’t — I couldn’t –“
And the rest of the story spilled out — and Lilé listened in shock. She thought she knew her son — she thought he was easygoing, carefree, and not at all inclined to settle down or work harder than he had to — so what in Wright’s name was he doing, taking in a babe that might not be his, when he’d specifically chosen to court a young woman several years younger than him, so he could have some time to be “footloose and fancy-free”?
And what would that young woman have to say about this?
“Berach,” Lilé said, interrupting a long speech about the woman he had watching the babe while he worked and his suspicions of her, “Berach, have ye told Joyce about this yet?”
Berach cast her a terrified glance. “Wright Almighty, no!”
“Well, don’t ye think ye ought to? If ye’re still fixin’ to marry her when she comes of age …”
“Ma! The woman threatens me with clippin’ shears whenever I look at any one else!”
She might be a wee bit justified in that, Lilé thought. Maybe I’d have had a bit less trouble with Finley if I’d thought to be a little more aggressive with the sewing scissors.
“She’d kill me! She’d rip off my — “
The door flew open for the second time that afternoon, though this time it slammed shut. The echo reverberated throughout the house.
“BERACH BROGAN!” Joyce Pelles shouted at the top of her lungs. “Why is there a strange old lady in yer house, and WHY IS SHE SAYIN’ THAT SHE’S WATCHIN’ YER KID?”
Berach stared at Joyce, then turned to Lilé. “Ma, ye’ve got to help me.”
And Lord Wright, ye need to help me! “Now Joyce,” Lilé said in her best soothing voice, “ye’ll understand everythin’ in a minute, just calm down –“
“I ain’t calmin’ down until I get some answers!” She glared at Berach. “So ANSWER!”
“Joyce,” Berach said slowly, “Joyce, ye really couldn’t expect me to wait all this time for ye to get old enough to wed, did ye?”
“I don’t see why not! I’m waiting, ain’t I?”
“It’s not the same thing–“
Lilé covered her eyes with her hand, then took herself out of the room to make sure that little Paddy hadn’t been awakened by the shouting.
Of course the toddler was awake and shrieking his displeasure about it to the world, but that was all to the good, for it gave Lilé an excuse to stay up in the loft and calm him down. And Katie wanted to know what all the yelling was about, so naturally Lilé had to explain it to her — well — in terms a five-year-old could comprehend. And then of course she had to field questions about when Katie would see her new baby cousin.
All in all, Lilé had her hands full until the time when she heard the door slam and looked out the window to see Joyce running away. And even though Lilé couldn’t see it, she would bet her last clipped copper that if the girl wasn’t in tears yet, she would be as soon as she felt safe enough to cry.
With a sigh, Lilé climbed down from the loft to see Berach standing dumbly in the doorway, watching Joyce go. He turned around when he heard Lilé approach. “She says it’s either Leah or her,” he gasped.
“Oh, Berach. I’m so sorry.”
“I can’t give up Leah. It — it wouldn’t be right, Ma.”
“I know.” In truth she didn’t know — not as well as she said she did — for Finley would have sent that baby packing to the nunnery orphanage, Grady would have, hell, if she had been a man, she would have. But Berach said he couldn’t — and if he couldn’t, he couldn’t.
“We’ll think of something,” Lilé continued, wrapping her youngest in a hug. “Don’t ye worry a minute about that. Ye just worry about takin’ care of that little one of yers.”
“Ma!” Grady said, climbing up from the cellar. “Ma, when’s dinner, I’m hungry … and Berach, what in Wright’s name did ye do to get that girl so angry this time?”
Berach cast her a beseeching look. “None of yer business,” Lilé replied. “And Berach …”
“Fixin’ dinner will take me a little while … so why don’t ye go home, get Leah, and bring her over here?”
Berach’s eyes lit up. “Thanks, Ma!” He kissed her cheek. “I’ll be back in a jiffy!” And with that he ran out the door, in the opposite direction of Joyce.
“Who the hell’s Leah?” Grady asked.
Lilé looked at her son and sighed. “Yer new niece — now, lad, if ye’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get dinner on.”
And with that she left her older son’s jaw nearly touching the floor as Lilé went forth to feed her family.