Their vegetable shop was doing well — better than Grady Brogan had ever dared to hope. Produce was flying off the shelves, customers streaming in and out with astonishing regularity. The harvest that his family was bringing in looked to be good. Taxes were a worry, as always, but Grady was confident that a bit of sharp practice on the side, he’d be able to meet his obligations. Hell, if all went well, he was looking at being able to liberate his family from the bonds of peasantry within five years, ten at the most.
If only he could enjoy it.
He sighed as he made a note to send Katie out to the apple orchard to see if she could find any more late fruit. He would enjoy it — soon. Hell, he’d probably be enjoying it in an hour or two.
Just as soon as he got last night’s argument out of his head …
It had been the unspoken rule of the Brogan family for as long as he could remember. It didn’t matter what the subject was, or who was on which side, or what the positions were. Whatever the problem was, it was always argued over at dinner. Always.
Sometimes he wondered if that was half the reason he and his siblings were so scrawny and undersized, back in Glasonland. Not just because there was only rarely enough food on the table to feed all three growing children, but because on the rare occasion that there was meat enough, none of the three of them wanted to stick around long enough to do it justice.
This time it was his mother, of all people, who started the fight. He was used to his father, his wife — hell, even Katie had brought up a few testy subjects in her short time on this earth — but his mother! His mother, who was usually the peacekeeper!
Her voice was mild, quiet, certainly not excited. She spoke with no more emotion than as if she was announcing what the almanac claimed would be the weather the next day.
What she said was, “Finley, ye know Berach’s been havin’ some problems, what with money bein’ tight an’ all — so I’ve been thinkin’, an’ what I’ve been thinkin’ is that ye should watch little Leah durin’ the day, so Berach don’t have to pay so much fer bad care.”
And then she cut into her fish and took a delicate bite.
She was the only one to keep her countenance. Grady’s jaw fell, as did Finley’s — Finley’s jaw unfortunately letting a few bits of half-masticated fish escape. Katie made a face, and Toinette looked green. Whether that was because of Finley’s display, the impending argument, or her morning sickness deciding to make a surprise visit in the evening hours was anyone’s guess.
Finley was the first to speak, after swallowing the fish that hadn’t left his mouth. “What did ye say?”
Lilé swallowed. “Come now, Finley. Ye an’ Grady are already watchin’ two little ones durin’ the day. What’s one more?”
“We’re gonna have one more, sooner an’ we know,” Finley replied, pointing his fork in the direction of Toinette’s stomach. Grady decidedly did not like that gesture, not at all, and by the glare she threw her father-in-law, Toinette was no more fond of it than Grady.
What she said, however, had nothing to do with that. “Paddy will be in school, though, by the time this little ‘un makes his appearance,” she pointed out. “An’ ye know that I’ll be able to stay home from work fer at least a little bit, to give the little mite a good start. So ye won’t be mindin’ three little ‘uns for quite a bit.”
Finley sighed and turned to his firstborn. “Grady, please explain to the women why their — helpfulness — just ain’t possible.”
“Pa …” Grady started, looking sidelong at his mother and his wife, both of which were turning glares on him.
“I mean, I have to help ye in the shop, don’t I?” Finley continued. “Ye can’t run the business all by yerself. An’ while Katie can look after the fields pretty well in the afternoons … well, poor Paddy an’ Nora are barely gettin’ the attention they deserve, I’d hate to add in the little bastard–”
“Finley Brogan!” Lilé snapped. “She’s your granddaughter!”
“An’ a bastard, an’ I don’t think Grady and Toinette would want attention bein’ taken away from their precious — legitimate — children, fer the sake of a bastard, do ye?”
“Ma, what’s a bastard?”
“Hush, Katie, it’s a bad word that ye won’t be repeatin’ in company — or out of it — if ye know what’s good for ye,” Toinette muttered. “I’ll explain when yer older.”
“Isn’t that what Melehan an’ Melou are? ‘Cause I heard ye an’ Da talkin’ –”
“Katie! Not now!” Grady snapped — clearly louder than he’d meant to, for Katie’s eyes went very wide and she scooted backward in her chair. Grady almost felt sorry — almost — but the girl had a mouth on her and needed to learn to keep her opinions to herself, and the sooner she learned that, the better.
Toinette patted Katie on the shoulder but didn’t skip a minute before she turned to Finley. “Leah’s a little girl who needs love and care jest the same as Paddy an’ Nora — an’ Katie, too, o’course — an’ whether or not her parents are married don’t matter a jot fer that.”
“But ye have to admit that every bit of time Grady an’ I give to her, we ain’t gonna be able to give to yer children,” Finley continued, inexorably.
“Well, it ain’t like yer dedicatin’ yer life ter makin’ sure my kids are doin’ all right, anyway,” Toinette snapped. “Neither of you,” she added, glaring at Grady.
“Oh, fer Wright’s sake, Toinette, don’t start –”
“I’ll tell ye what ye should do,” Finley continued, ignoring his son’s outburst. “Toinette, Lilé — one of ye quit yer job, an’ then ye can take in all the little bastards ye like to mind durin’ the days, an’ ye shan’t hear a peep out of me about it.”
Oh, Wright, here we go again. Grady squeezed his eyes shut for a moment before forcing them open. This was the old argument, the one that hadn’t stopped since Finley got fired from his last job (showed up to work drunk one too many times, apparently) and Grady decided to seize that setback as the moment to start his vegetable shop. Every minute Finley spent picking up the slack at the homestead — changing diapers, feeding the little ones, helping customers select or pay for their goods — was a minute Finley spent resenting Toinette and Lilé for their jobs outside the home. In his (short-sighted) view, their jobs weren’t doing the family any practical good (never mind the amount of ale he could afford thanks to the guaranteed income provided by Toinette and Lilé); instead, they were taking up the womenfolks’ valuable time. That time, in Finley’s view, would be much better spent changing diapers, feeding the little ones, helping customers select or pay for their goods — and, of course, fetching Finley drinks and massaging his feet as he sat on the front porch into some glorious, and, in his view, well-deserved retirement.
What Finley was seeking to retire from was not a question Grady had ever dared to ask. He knew only too well that Finley technically owned the crops, and the land on which they grew and on which the shop stood. He could shut down Grady’s dreams in a second. Never mind what a myopic and stupid move that would be; he could do it, and Grady would have no recourse.
And since the property, unlike a nobleman’s, wasn’t entailed, Finley didn’t have to leave him the farm. He could kick Grady, Toinette and all the little ones to the curb and invite either Berach or Ailís to live with him and inherit the farm when he was gone. Finley would probably like that. Berach would be the only one dumb or desperate enough to take him up on that offer, and he would be so grateful for the farm’s larger financial resources and the help of Lilé in raising Leah that he wouldn’t ask Finley to do more than change the occasional dirty nappy.
Grady couldn’t let that happen.
So he kept his mouth shut, most of the time — the subject of the women’s work was the only one in which he dared raise his voice against his father. But he wouldn’t unless it was necessary.
Judging by the expression on the women’s faces, it wouldn’t be necessary for him to do anything more than act as the “voice of reason.”
Lilé was the first to speak. “Finley, ye know I can’t do that — think of all the Ferreiras did fer us, when we first came here! I can’t quit an’ leave them in the lurch!”
Grady doubted Finley remembered the kindnesses that the Ferreiras had bestowed on them, but he did. Then again, Finley knew the flavor of his wife’s crusty bread, and it would never occur to him that her bread might well have been baked in the Ferreira’s enormous ovens at the bakery rather that at his own hearth stove. And he never saw the little “bonuses” that the Ferreiras gave whenever Ailís needed a new pair of shoes or Berach had outgrown two sets of Finley’s Sunday best. Grady was the one who took those earnings to the market and spent them, because even if the money technically belonged to Finley as the head of household, it was meant for the family, and if he’d gotten it, it would have never been spent on the family.
“Ye don’t have ter leave ’em in any lurches. Jest get Ailís to take yer job like ye always intended her too. There, problem solved,” Finley said with a laconic shrug.
“Finley Brogan, Ailís will start to work again when she’s good an’ ready — right now she has her hands full with takin’ care of the farm an’ raisin’ Nellie. If she don’t need ter work yet, she certainly ain’t gonna fer yer convenience,” Toinette snapped, flipping her hair over her shoulder in that way Grady found so alluring — when it wasn’t about to get him into trouble.
“Well, Toinette, so far as I can tell, ye don’t owe the folk up at the theater nothin’ in the way o’ gratitude –”
“Ye fool, I make more than Lilé, so it would take a right idiot ter think that I would quit an’ she would keep workin’!” Before Finley could respond to that, Toinette added, “An’ let me tell ye, sir, if money gets tight in this family, the first thing ter go won’t be food fer my children, or dresses fer Lilé or me, or whatever Grady needs in this shop — it’ll be yer damned ale an’ whiskey!”
Finley’s eyebrows went up, ever-so-slightly — the sort of look that portended that someone was going to get their hide tanned. Grady felt himself tense, the same as he had when he was a child. Finley wouldn’t dare to beat Toinette, would he?
He wouldn’t, as Grady found out a few moments later. Old age had, if nothing else, improved Finley’s cunning. He knew he would never get away with hitting Toinette; on the one hand, as sweet as she could be to those who were on her good side, she was too much Cerise Chevaux’s daughter to take it mildly. She might even hit back! And on the other hand, even if Toinette submitted meekly to chastisement, the chances of Grady being as meek were no where near as good.
More to the point, Finley had a better — subtler — way to get back at Toinette.
He turned to Katie. “Katie, my sweet, ye’re a smart girl, ain’t ye?”
Katie nodded slowly, clearly divided between accepting the compliment and falling into whatever trap her grandfather was laying open for her.
“Finley, don’t ye dare!” Toinette snapped. Lilé looked between her husband and her granddaughter with an expression akin to horror.
“Well, then, sweet — no, don’t look at yer ma, look at me — will ye explain to yer ma an’ yer grandma that I’m the man o’ this house, and as such I’ll be makin’ all the important decisions, an’ if they have any problems with that, they know where the door is?”
“Katie, don’t –” Grady started, intending to tell his daughter not to listen to her grandfather.
But it was too late, Katie’s eyes went wide, tears sprang into them, and she pushed her chair and food away and went running up to the loft.
Toinette jumped to her feed, displaying a speed she had, recently, only been showing when she had to make a mad dash to the latrine. “Grady! Fer Wright’s sake, I’d expect ye to defend yer daughter, not throw her to the bloody wolves! What kind o’ man are ye?” she shouted. “And Finley!”
Finley only raised one eyebrow and cocked his head to one side. “Yes, Toinette?”
Toinette’s nostrils flared. “Wright damn ye, Finley! Wright damn ye an’ yer lazy bones straight ter hell! An’ if he doesn’t — well, let me tell ye, sir, ye may have warped an’ abused and half-destroyed yer own children — but I’ll be damned if I let ye do the same ter mine!”
With that she ran out of the room, following Katie up the ladder to the loft.
“Well,” Finley said into the silence that was only broken by Katie’s sobbing — and Paddy and Nora, hearing the commotion, joining in — “I trust we’ve settled that.” He took a calm bite of his fish. “The last thing we need in this house is another voice ter add ter the screamin’, isn’t it?”
And that was how Lilé lost the fight.
Hours later, after Paddy and Nora had been calmed, after Katie was washed and tucked into bed, Grady was climbing the ladder to loft to wish the children good night, when he heard something that dealt yet another blow to his fragile manhood.
Toinette was reading Katie a story before bed, Grady couldn’t hear what it was about, but Toinette’s voice was low and soothing. Just the thing to put a little girl safely to sleep.
Except Katie sighed. “What is it, honey?” Toinette asked.
“Mummy … why do you and Grandma always fight with Grandpa and Daddy?”
Grady froze on the steps of the ladder, listening in spite of himself.
“Well, we don’t really fight with yer daddy, it’s jest that … that he tries ter stop us all from fighting, an’ sometimes that means yer grandma an’ I treat him like he was takin’ yer grandpa’s side.”
“But why do you fight with Grandpa at all?”
Toinette sighed. “It’s complicated, Katie … I know ye think I’m jest sayin’ that, ter get out o’ explainin’ things ter you, but it is. It’s a lot of little reasons, that wouldn’t be much on their own, but that all roll together and cause a big fight … ye know, how in the winter, ye just start with a little ball of snow, an’ sooner than ye know it it’s a big ol’ snowman?”
“I guess.” Katie shifted, and Grady almost started walking up the ladder again. But Katie had another question. “Mummy?”
“Grandpa wouldn’t really kick ye an’ Grandma out of the house … would he?”
“Well, if he did, he’d be beggin’ fer us to come back before the week was out,” Toinette replied lightly. “Can ye imagine how yer grandpa would like eatin’ his own cookin’?”
Katie giggled, and Toinette’s mission was accomplished. Grady, however, slowly felt his way down the ladder and sat on the couch.
His own wife didn’t have enough faith in him to say the answer that, to him, should have been obvious: “Of course he wouldn’t do that, yer daddy wouldn’t let him.”
Grady closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
Focus. He needed to focus. Focus on the future. In five years, ten at the most, he’d be able to buy out his family’s — his, Toinette’s and the children’s — indentures. They’d be merchants. They could move out of this house, start a new, more prosperous life.
And with any luck … Finley would not be joining them.