“Say Da-Da,” Neil Porter said to his daughter.
Nellie looked away, seemingly fascinated by a spider crawling up the wall.
“Nel-lie. Nellie Bly. Look over here. Look at Da-Da.” The little girl slowly turned her gaze back to her father. Neil smiled. “Good girl. Now, can you say Da-Da for me like a big girl?”
Nellie turned her head a little to one side, her brows wrinkling in obvious confusion.
“Say Da-Da. Come on, sweetie, I know ye can do it.” Nellie still looked confused. Neil gestured to himself. “Who am I, Nellie Bly? Say my name.”
The little girl’s eyes lit up. “Mama!”
It was only the knowledge that the little one would be sure to copy whatever he did, and that Ailís would hardly be happy to find her daughter concussed, that kept Neil from banging his head his head against the wall.
Nellie cocked her head to one side again. “Mama?”
Neil took a deep breath. “Close, sweetie, but let’s try this again. Say Da-Da.”
At the table, not more than five feet away from Neil’s attempts at vocabulary drills, Ailís watched her small family and smiled.
“It’s nice ter see Neil helpin’ ye out,” Lilé remarked in a tone of mild disbelief, the voice of a woman who had raised three children and now was helping to raise four grandchildren with little help from the man she had selected to be father and grandfather to them. (Nellie didn’t count as a grandchild she was helping to raise, since she lived in a different house from Lilé and her parents were more than capable of providing for all her needs. This left Lilé able to perform the typical duties of a grandmother, i.e., spoiling the child rotten and handing it back to the parents when it started to fuss.) “Does he help ye often?”
Lilé knew the answer to that very well, and Ailís knew she knew it, but she repeated it anyway, in the hopes that this time Lilé would be able to believe her. “Oh, ye know Neil. I swear he’d have handled the midnight feedin’s if he’d had the parts fer it. When Nellie started to get her teeth in, Neil was so keen t’ help start her on solids, ye wouldn’t believe it.” Ailís sighed and shook her head. “I still haven’t gotten the strained peas out o’ his Sunday best.”
“He tried to feed the babe in his Sunday clothes?” Lilé asked, her eyes rather wide.
“He was a bit — over-eager to start,” Ailís replied. “I couldn’t tell him no.”
“I begin t’ see,” Lilé replied, eyeing Neil and his continued attempts to teach his child the proper term with which to address him, “why Nellie calls him ‘Mama.'”
“Well, it ain’t like it’s a bad thing that he helps,” Ailís replied, springing to his defense. “And it ain’t like he’s around all day, spoilin’ her rotten — but when he gets home at night, well, he wants to spend time with her, that’s all.”
Lilé nodded. “I see. I do see, Ailís. Ye picked a good one.”
Ailís gave no reply to that, since all the ones she could think of would somehow slight Lilé’s choice of man — her own father! But then again, it wasn’t like any of the Brogan children were blind to Finley’s faults; the only difference was how they responded to them. Grady took Finley’s laziness and lackidaisical attitude toward the minor details of life like “work” and “providing for one’s family” and reversed it, possessing a drive to not only provide the necessities of life for his family, but to rise above their surroundings and attain the coveted (for him) status of freeman and merchant. Ailís saw her father’s faults and did her best to find a man who possessed none of them, or at least none of the ones that had foisted all the work of life off to Lilé. And Berach …
A year and a half ago, Ailís would have said that Berach had seen the virtues in his father’s faults and done his best to find the virtues in them. Whoring, drinking, gambling … Lilé had said, with a brittle smile, that he was a young man and was just sowing his wild oats, and that he would soon grow up and settle down, but Ailís hadn’t held out much hope of that.
Then one of his whores dropped a baby onto Berach’s lap, said it was his, and Berach turned around completely. Ailís still couldn’t believe the transformation. He worked himself to the bone trying to support Leah on his slender salary. He never went out anymore — he laughed and said that he couldn’t afford it, but Ailís had to wonder if he stayed in because he would rather spend time with Leah than some anonymous woman.
“How is Leah doing?” Ailís asked suddenly. “And Berach?”
“Oh … well … Berach is …” Lilé sighed. “He’s doin’ his best, poor lad.”
“Meanin’ that … well, he works hard, ye know he does, between Lord Gwynedd’s fields and his own house an’ garden an’ Leah … an’ it’s hard for him, sometimes, makin’ sure everythin’ gets done an’ that everyone has enough to eat … that old woman he has watchin’ Leah in the daytime is useless, of course, sometimes Berach says he’s astounded to come home an’ find the house not burned down.”
“He should find a new one.”
“He would, but he can barely afford the one he’s got.”
Ailís sighed. “I keep tellin’ him to leave Leah with me in the daytimes, Wright knows I can handle two little ones, an’ it wouldn’t cost him a penny …”
“He’d love to take ye up on that, ye know he would, but ye know how far yer farm is from Lord Gwynedd’s lands.”
The distance was an hour’s walk in both directions, plus another half-hour to Berach’s home. It was one thing for a vigorous young man to do that for himself — even after backbreaking labor in the fields from dawn until dusk — it was another thing for even a vigorous young man to carry a fussy toddler all that distance. If Berach had a wagon or just a horse, that would be one thing … but he didn’t have that; couldn’t even dream of buying so much as an old mule that might drop dead on the commute, never mind stabling and feeding it. Hiring a horse from the livery stables was also out of the question; it cost too much and the livery stables was an equally far walk, in the opposite direction.
“Well, maybe I could jest walk ter Berach’s house with Nellie in the mornings, an’ come home at night …”
“That’s too much trouble and ye know it. Besides, what if ye were runnin’ late one morning, and Berach had to get to work? One thing that can be said for that old bat, at least she’s reliable –”
“An’ I wouldn’t be?” Ailís chuckled.
“Ye know what I mean: ye’ve a house of yer own, a little one, ye might be late. Whereas that old woman … she might as well vanish into the ether after Berach gets home, for all that she seems to have a life o’ her own.”
“Aye, aye, true.” That seemed to end the conversation, at least until Lilé sighed and rolled her shoulders. “Ma? Ye all right?” Ailís asked.
“I’m fine, I’m fine — jest gettin’ old,” Lilé said with a little chuckle. “Old an’ tired … think of all ye’ve got to look forward to, when ye hit my age!”
Ailís frowned. “Ma, I hate to tell ye … but I don’t think I’ll be tired as ye are, even when I’m old as ye are.”
“Overconfidence of the young.”
“No, I jest don’t think I’ll be as tired as ye, because I won’t be as overworked as ye,” Ailís replied. “Ma, what did ye have to do to convince Grady and Da to let ye leave fer the day?”
“Grady did want to help him in the shop this morning, but when I said I would take Katie with me ter see her cousin …”
“So ye took one of his children off his hands fer the day. I suppose he had some complaints ter make, though, on how ye took the most self-sufficient one with ye?”
“Ailís! That ain’t fair! Yer brother wouldn’t say somethin’ like that!” But Ailís’s eyes were sharp enough to catch her mother’s uncomfortable shift of position. “Da said it, didn’t he?”
“Ye know what yer father is like …”
“Aye, Ma, I do — an’ I know, now, livin’ with Neil, that he wouldn’t be so bad if ye didn’t let him get away with it.” Lilé stared at her. “I’m serious, Ma. If ye weren’t always cleanin’ up after him, and makin’ sure all the work got done whether he’d lift a finger or no, an’ sellin’ our vegetables when ye were afraid Da wouldn’t bring enough in, do ye think Da would be so lazy? He can be so lazy because ye let him be!”
“Ye know it’s not so simple … if I hadn’t done all that, ‘specially back in Glasonland …”
“Then maybe Da would have gotten off his duff an’ started livin’ up to his end of the bargain,” Ailís replied. “If ye want to slow down an’ rest a bit before that man drives you into an early grave, ye gotta stop lettin’ him walk all over ye. And ye gotta stop now.”
While Ailís continued to argue with her mother, Neil tried to teach his own offspring the difference between a mother and a father.
“Nellie, no, sweetie. I’m not Mama, I’m Da-Da. Da-Da. Try it for me, won’t you?”
Nellie just stared up at him.
“Hmm … well, can ye try Papa?” Nothing. “Pa? Da? Daddy?” Still nothing. “Neil?” he finally asked in complete desperation.
“No, not Newwie — Nellie! — Neil.”
“Newwie,” Nellie repeated, crossing her arms over her chest and pouting at him.
As Neil wracked his brains for a new approach, his wife’s niece wandered into the house. “Uncle Neil, can I play with Nellie?”
Neil opened his mouth and shut it again. Nellie was looking up at her cousin with wide eyes — wide with curiosity, anticipation, terror? Neil couldn’t tell. But it wasn’t like he was going to be going anywhere, and Katie had two younger sibs at home, so she knew how to act around little ones.
“Of course ye can, Kathie.”
“Katie, Uncle Neil!”
“Whoops! Sorry, honey. Now ye play nice with your little cousin, teach her how to be a grown-up big girl just like yerself,” Neil said as he got up. He walked a little to the side, intent on watching Katie until he was sure she could be trusted with the little one.
Katie started with a tickle, then moved into a rousing game of peek-a-boo that had Nellie shrieking with laughter before five minutes were up. Neil grinned and walked over to the table where his wife and mother-in-law were whispering fiercely. “Sharin’ secrets, ladies?” Neil asked with a smile as he sat down beside them.
They must have been, for all conversation stopped the moment Neil sat down. Then Ailís took a deep breath. “Neil, I was jest tellin’ Ma –”
“Ailís, don’t. I don’t want ye ter get in a fight over yer husband over yer silly ideas.”
“Neil’s a good man, Ma, he won’t think it’s silly!”
“An’ yer sayin’ yer father isn’t a good man?”
“He sure as hell is a lazy one, Ma, and the one sufferin’ fer it–”
Neil’s head volleyed from one to the other like that of a spectator at a really good duel.
“I ain’t sufferin’, honey, I’m jest gettin’ older and more tired –”
“An’ ye wouldn’t have to be if Da would jest do his fair share!” Before Lilé could answer that, Ailís turned to Neil. “Neil, I told Ma that she should stop pickin’ up all the slack that Da leaves behind –”
“An’ I told yer wife that if I did that, poor Toinette would be stuck with all the work –”
“An’ I told Ma that she wouldn’t if Ma would just tell her what she was tryin’ ter do –”
“An’ as I told yer wife, that wouldn’t work, because Grady would tell her to do what needed to be done, an’ how she could she tell her husband no?”
“An’ as I was tellin’ Ma, Grady can’t be any more happy with Da’s shiftlessness than any of us are, ‘twouldn’t be nothin’ ter get him to join in too –”
All three adults turned to the two children on the floor, as a shriek which was not playful emanated from Nellie, and Katie did her best to look innocent.
It didn’t work. Lilé and Ailís were both on their feet, Ailís to kiss and soothe her sobbing daughter, and Lilé to round on her granddaughter, before Neil could blink. “Katie! What did ye do?”
“I didn’t mean nothin’, Grandma, I do it ter Paddy all the time an’ he likes it!”
“WHAT DID YE DO?”
“There, there, Nellie, there, there, sweet, it’ll be all right …” Ailís said, patting Nellie’s back as she cried into her mother’s shoulder.
“I jest said ‘BOO!’ when I opened up my hands –”
“I might have made a scary face …”
Neil sidled around the table and walked up Ailís and Nellie. “Here, I’ll take her up,” he said, taking the toddler from his wife’s arms. “It’s her naptime anyway. She’s probably jest overtired …” He jerked his head toward Katie and Lilé. “Save Kerrie from yer ma while I put this little one to bed.”
Ailís frowned. “Katie, Neil.”
“Aye, that’s what I said, isn’t it?”
Ailís shook her head and shooed him on his way. Neil brought Nellie upstairs, calmed her down (getting her out of the same room as Katie seemed to help), and put her in her crib. “There, now, sweetie, that’s all right.” He kissed her on the forehead. “Promise me, when ye grow up — ye won’t be as confusin’ as yer ma an’ her ma. Will ye?”
Nellie looked up at him with wide, solemn eyes.
“Never mind. Now I’m jest confusin’ ye.” He sighed. “Night-night, Nellie. Sleep tight.”
“Nigh-nigh,” she replied.
He was halfway out the door, and thus wasn’t even sure he had heard correctly, when Nellie repeated her statement in a very sleepy voice. “Nigh-nigh, Da-Da.”