“Pa? Can I ask you somethin’?”
“Ye just did,” Jeremiah Thatcher chuckled, “but ye can ask another.”
“A’right.” Billy straightened and stared at his father with all the intensity that a six-year-old could muster. “How come yer so old, Pa?”
Jeremiah whistled. “Whew. Ye don’t pull no punches, do ye, son?”
“It was just a question …” Billy kicked the soil, not daring to look up through his bangs.
“I know, I know … an’ I’ll do me best to answer it.” Jeremiah dropped a few more seeds into the earth, collecting his thoughts. “Well, Billy, what I want t’ know is, why didn’t ye ask how come yer so much younger than all the other boys?”
Billy stared up at him with his head cocked a little to one side. “I am?”
“In comparison t’ the sons o’ some of the other men who came with me t’ Albion, ye are,” Jeremiah said with a chuckle. “But the short answer to yer question, lad — I was older when you were born than most of the other boys’ pas were.”
Jeremiah’s snowy eyebrows crept toward his hairline. “Well … if ye want an answer to that …” He frowned. “That might take a bit of explainin’ …”
“Hmm … well, t’ start with, yer ma an’ I didn’t have any little ‘uns when we first came to Albion.”
“‘Cause we were only just married!”
“Oh.” Billy frowned, clearly trying to put the pieces together in his head. “But …”
“Ma says ye had Roma two years after comin’ here,” Billy replied.
“Aye, we did,” Jeremiah replied, wondering how his and Kata’s oldest daughter came into it.
“So … she’s only fourteen …” He cocked his head a little to one side. “How’d ye get so old in fourteen years?”
Jeremiah had to duck his head to one side and cover his mouth with an earthy hand to keep from laughing out loud. Once he choked the mirth down, he managed to say in a complete deadpan, “It’s kids, lad. They’ll turn every hair ye’ve got gray before ye know it.” Before Billy could get more confused, though, Jeremiah added, “Though truly, lad, it’s more to do with the fact that yer ma an’ I were … eh, not older than all the couples that came into Albion, but we were on the old side for couples just startin’ out.”
“We were old not to have any kids.”
“‘Cause yer ma an’ I didn’t meet each other ’til we were older.”
Best to just leave it at that, Jeremiah thought. Because there was no use in explaining to a six-year-old just what he’d been before Kata had walked into his life. No use telling a six-year-old how he’d spent most of his youth and early middle age going from field to pub to sleep (generally with a pretty, and different, bedfellow every night). No use telling a six-year-old how he hadn’t seen much of a point in trying to make something of himself. He was an indentured man, worse, the sixth of six sons. The best he could hope for from his father was a vegetable patch — more likely, he’d spend the rest of his life working his lord’s land, while scrambling to raise some sort of crop for the winter out of whatever pittance the lord gave him to support himself on. As it was, he could barely raise enough food to support himself (and his pub habit). Trying to raise a family on that? Impossible. Besides, of what use were squalling babes when there were friends, women, and a good glass of bitter at the end of a hard day’s work?
Or at least, there had been that until Kata waltzed into his life. Kata, with her luxurious, curly black hair. Kata, with her slanting gypsy’s eyes in the most impossible of blues. Kata, who had enough determination and drive for the both of them.
Because when Kata came into his life — first into the village with her gypsy band, next into his bed, and last into his cottage (with her much-younger sister Esmé, but that was a story for another day) — somehow just living day to day didn’t seem like enough anymore. He wanted more. Even though both he and Kata were both too old to be starting a family — why, Kata was past thirty and he was older yet, they’d be lucky if she even got pregnant — he almost started to want one.
Almost. Almost. Because even on those dark nights when he lay in bed, stroking Kata’s hair, and wishing for all those things that all men wanted, the future would appear before him, bleak and desolate as it always was. Because there wasn’t a future, not really, not with his lord. What was the point of bringing children into the world when all you would do is watch them grow thin and glassy-eyed with hunger? What was the point of having a family only to watch them starve?
Why would anyone in their right mind bring more people into a life like his?
And just when he had lost hope — hope had miraculously appeared before him.
It had been Kata who had found it, of course. Kata who had settled with him in hopes of bettering herself; Kata who, when she realized that the only real difference between this and her caravan life was that the scenery never changed and the work was different, had decided that she wasn’t going to give up, that she was going to find something better and that she would bring him when she found it, whether he would or won’t. It had been Kata who had found out about the settlement group led by Prince Arthur (now King), who had heard that they were accepting peasants who could wriggle free of their indentures to their lords. It had been she who had talked to Sir Lancelot. And then, when all her ducks were in a neat little row, she’d brought the idea to Jeremiah.
The idea had blindsided him. Leave Thornton Hollows, his village? He’d never been farther than the lord’s keep! And this Albion place — might as well be the moon for all he knew of it! But Kata had pressed him, insisted, worn him down. Didn’t he want something better? Didn’t he want a life? Didn’t he want a future?
She convinced him, finally. And his lord had transferred his indenture to Lancelot for a pitifully low price (oh, if he could see Jeremiah now!). So before he knew it, almost, he was in Albion, with his own decent-sized plot of land and a stable job working Sir Lancelot’s holdings. He had a house, he had money, he had a wife who was making a killing as the only midwife in the young kingdom — it was almost too good to be true.
And in a way, it had been. Or had it? Certainly he worked hard, harder than he ever had before … he’d made something of himself. And Kata, somehow, had gotten pregnant and the pregnancy had been going swimmingly. He’d been amazed at how quickly his life had turned around — not even two years from leaving his old homeland …
And then it happened.
He’d been using a strange potion an old gypsy woman had given him. She swore it killed bugs without harming the plants around them. And so it did — well — mostly — but it seemed to be working, when … all of a sudden, there was a reaction. He’d been surrounded by a cloud of strange fumes. And when the fumes cleared … he was something entirely different.
He’d been a green creature, a creature that needed nothing more than sunlight, water and a little love. A creature like a plant. But not quite a plant, for he could still walk, and talk, and think, and be. A Plantsim, as he had learned later. Not that he cared what they were called at the time. At the time he’d been in a blind panic.
So had Kata, when he had run into the house. She, unlike him, had heard of such creatures before. They often took shelter with the gypsies, for the population at large was not overly accommodating towards those who were different. So, rather than waiting for the torch-carrying mob to show up on their doorstep, she’d shooed him out the door, toward the gypsy camp — for both of their safety, and the safety of their unborn child.
But Jeremiah hadn’t left, not right away. He’d hidden in the house, skipping work, only daring to work their farm at night. He waited just long enough for their baby to be born — little Roma. And then he had fled to the gypsy camp.
But it had been lonely at the gypsy camp. The other gypsies left him mostly to his own devices. Though Sir Lancelot let him keep his job, no one — other than Kata, and her visits with Roma were rare, there were only so many hours in the day, after all — seemed to want to have much to do with him. He’d been pining away for a little love. Love that even Kata in her visits alone couldn’t fully provide.
And as he pined in the late summer sun, the second amazing thing happened to him. His wish for a companion had become a reality. And he had ended up with not one companion but two. He’d germinated. Two little seedlings, or sprouts — he didn’t know what to call him. All he knew was that they were a boy and a girl. He’d called them Ash and Marigold.
Like him, they were half-plant, half-Sim. Like him, they only needed sunlight, water and love. By all accounts he was having quite an easy time of raising his two little Plantbabies, since all he had to do was put them out in the sunlight and give them a bath from time to time. And lots of love. But he had that to spare.
Like plants, though, they grew fast. He’d barely made it through a year when he came home and found Ash and Marigold to have the same stature as adults. Like weeds, they’d grown up in a night. And they’d matured, too — indeed, in some ways he would say that Ash was more mature than he was.
Since they were suddenly old enough to see and understand the world around them, it didn’t take long for Ash and Marigold to realize that their father was not happy. They were content as half-Sim hybrids, this being the only life they had ever known. And they had no family other than Jeremiah and each other to regret. So as they started their adult lives, they’d been forced to keep looking back at their old man.
It had been Ash who had found a way out of this predicament. Ash who had freed both his sister and himself from supporting their father’s spirits. He found an old gypsy woman (whether it was the same gypsy woman who gave Jeremiah the insecticide he never found out) who claimed to have a cure for Jeremiah’s condition. A strange pink potion. Ash, usually so prudent and careful in financial matters, bought it without a second’s hesitation. And he had run back to give it to his father.
Jeremiah, who had none of Ash’s usual caution and prudence, downed the potion without a second thought. Not to say that he hadn’t had them when the potion took effect — but by then it was too late. And much to his surprise as anyone else’s, he was cured — whole — normal again. He’d run, with Marigold on his heels, back to his old homestead.
They arrived just in time to welcome Ella (Jeremiah and Kata’s second daughter, after all, he and Kata were still married and one couldn’t very well expect their visits to be chaste, could one?) into the world.
Ella was twelve years old now, and seemed to have inherited all of Kata’s gypsy flightiness and Jeremiah’s ne’er-do-well instincts. Or maybe she was like her sister Marigold, Marigold certainly had an eye for fun. But Marigold had a head for business, too, running Albion’s most successful whorehouse. But either way, Ella was his daughter and he loved her — maybe all the more because of the fact that he’d gotten his family back on the night when she had been born.
Jeremiah jumped. “Eh? What is it, Billy?”
“Ye weren’t listening! I just asked ye why ye and ma didn’t meet until ye were old!”
“Oh …” With a smile Jeremiah ruffled Billy’s hair. “Well … there are a couple o’ reasons for that. Sometimes that’s just the way life works out. Ye don’t meet the person ye’re meant to be with until ye’re older … an’ maybe ye weren’t ready before then. Either way it all turns out right as rain.”
“Ye said there were a couple o’ reasons.”
“Ah. Ye want the other ones …” Jeremiah smiled again. “Well, lad … how about we just say that I’ll tell ye when ye’re older?”
“Aw, man! That’s what grown-ups always say when the story is good!”
“O’ course it is,” Jeremiah answered. “Otherwise, how would we get ye young whippersnappers to listen to us?”
At that Billy giggled, and the father and son returned to their work.