Staring at the crockery display, Berach sighed. He didn’t really have the money to be wasting on luxuries like new bowls and plates, but Leah had recently discovered that she wouldn’t have to eat as much of her yucky mush if she managed to knock it off the tray of her high chair. Normally Berach managed to stay on top of things — generally by not putting the bowl anywhere within her reach — but last night his mother had come to visit unexpectedly, and when he’d gone to answer the door, he’d put the bowl down on Leah’s tray.
Stupid, he thought. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
No sooner had he opened the door and greeted Lilé than there was a crash — and more than a crash, a shattering of pottery. He’d spun around to see the mush bowl on the floor — in pieces — and Leah staring at it with huge eyes. Then she started to wail.
And so he had his hands full with comforting Leah and trying to avoid his mother’s baleful stare as she (thankfully) cleaned up the mess. If the episode had happened to anyone else — or even if the visitor had been anyone else — he would have found it hysterical. As it was, he could feel his mother’s eyes on the back of his head, judging him with every move he made.
Once Leah had been tickled and cuddled into contentment, Lilé hadn’t pulled any punches. “Ye need a woman ter help ye with her,” she said, nodding to Leah. “Ye put up with too much of that child’s nonsense.”
No, Ma, what I need is a job that pays more, or a lord that doesn’t blame me fer losin’ me house when he assigns me to one that costs more than he’s willin’ ter pay me, he thought. “Well, Ma, ye know any women who are willin’ ter take me on — me, a man who can barely keep himself an’ one little girl, an’ is already losin’ his house ’cause he can’t keep it no more?”
Lilé dismissed his concerns with a simple, “The house is too big fer one young man anyway — aye, an’ too big fer one young man with one little girl, too. An’ ye’ve got a lot ter offer a young woman. Now, perhaps if ye were to find a widow, with a child or two … she wouldn’t mind Leah so much, an’ if nothin’ else, she’d know how to stretch a copper …”
“Sir?” the potter asked, breaking Berach out of his memories. “Sir, are ye buyin’, or are ye jest lookin’?”
“I …” Berach started, looking again at the assembled crockery. It was really all too big to serve as a mush-bowl, but maybe if he looked harder he’d see something smaller–
He saw something else entirely.
“Neither,” he heard himself say to the potter, and before he could properly process his actions, he was wending his way down the hillside to the lower part of the marketplace. Ye’re mad, his voice of reason told him. She ain’t gonna want ter talk ter ye, she made that good an’ clear a long time ago. What do ye think draggin’ all that up is gonna do fer ye now?
Ignoring his voice of reason was something that he had a good deal of practice at by now, and so it was with nothing more than a mild sense of trepidation that he stepped under the cloth of the refreshment tent, walked up to her table, and asked, “Is this seat taken?”
Joyce looked up in surprise, then crossed her arms over her chest and stuck her nose so far up in the air, she’d stand a good chance of drowning if it started to rain. “I ain’t got nothin’ ter say to ye.”
“That don’t answer me question.”
“There’s fifteen other tables! All empty!” she snapped. “Why ye gotta be sittin’ with me fer?”
Berach hesitated for a moment, figured that she would have triumphantly announced the fact if she was, in fact, expecting someone else to sit with her, and plopped into the seat.
Joyce’s mouth opened and her eyes went toward the town guard —
“Ye call fer the guards,” Berach pointed out, “an’ what are ye gonna say I tried ter do ter ye? There’s half-a-dozen folk standin’ around who can say that I ain’t touched ye, I ain’t even raised me voice.” As she still looked unconvinced, he added, “An’ have a bit o’ pity on me, I can’t afford to bail meself out o’ gaol. Plus Grady won’t, Ma would want to but Pa won’t let her — an’ that only leaves Ailís. Ye liked Ailís, didn’t ye? She’s got a husband an’ a child an’ another little one on the way that can be usin’ that money more an’ His Majesties guards can.”
“If ye ain’t got money fer bail, that’s yer problem, not mine,” Joyce sniffed. But at least she didn’t seem ready to call for the guards, so Berach didn’t have to make a break for it.
Staring into her face, he wondered why he had decided to try to talk to her — what in Wright’s name he had been thinking … he sighed.
“What?” Joyce asked.
Glancing at her carefully, and not even believing what he was about to ask, he began, slowly, “Yer birthday’s comin’ up soon, ain’t it?”
“Six weeks,” she admitted, staring at him a bit like a caged leopard might — under control for now, but if one of those bars weakened, watch out.
“Well, happy birthday in advance,” he said. “Ye got plans fer afterward? Ye’ll be an adult, ye know. Gonna stay on with yer ma and pa?”
“I don’t see how that’s any o’ yer business,” Joyce replied loftily.
Guess she is then. And oh, she don’t like it. His heart starting to race — he must have been mad trying to bring the subject up at all — he went on, “I know when I turned eighteen, I was more than ready ter run out o’ the house an’ start bein’ on my own …” Aye, and look where that’s got me! “Of course, ye’re a girl, so–”
“What’s bein’ a girl got to do with anythin’?”
Oh, he knew that flash in her eyes, the way her chin lifted — she hated it whenever someone implied that being a girl made her somehow other, lesser. That she wouldn’t think and feel the same way a man would, simply because her body was a bit different. Berach barely bit back a smile. “Well, girls ain’t too keen on leavin’ the nest, is all.”
“Why, everyone. An’ I seen it meself. Why, before Ailís got married, those last few weeks, she was nervous as anythin’ … an’ I’m sure yer sister Meg was, now, wasn’t she?”
“Wasn’t Grady nervous before his weddin’?” Joyce fired back.
She almost had him there — almost. “Not as nervous as Ailís.”
“Ailís had more ter be nervous about. First there’s gettin’ married — and all that, er, entails — an’ then she was movin’ right far away –”
“See, leavin’ the house! Jest I said!”
“It ain’t that simple, Berach,” Joyce replied; his heart fluttered a little, hearing her say his name. “There’s leavin’ the house, an’ then there’s moving so far away, livin’ with — not a stranger, Neil weren’t no stranger before, but with someone ye’ve never lived with before — movin’ out to be on yer own ain’t the same thing.”
“‘Course not. Even for a girl.” And she leaned back, smirking at him, daring him, almost, to try to best her in this argument.
She was doomed to be disappointed in that. “So … so are ye saying that, if it came time fer ye to be leavin’ the house, ye wouldn’t be nervous?”
“Oh, I’d be nervous — a little bit — but weren’t ye?”
“Well, I suppose,” he admitted, or pretended to. “But ye wouldn’t let nervousness stop ye?”
“No-o …” Berach leaned back and stroked his chin. “So — are ye tellin’ me, Joyce, that if ye had the chance — the option, I mean — ter move out, on yer birthday, an’ start yer own new life … ye would?”
He took a deep breath. “Then why don’t ye marry me, Joyce?”
“Listen ter me. Before ye get up and bite me head off, listen to what I have ter say, please?” He desperately wanted another deep breath, but had to settle for a quick gasp before Joyce could take advantage of his pause and leap across the table to try to strangle him. “Ye want out o’ yer parents house — ye admitted as much, didn’t ye? An’ soon, right? So marry me. I — look, I know ye’re angry with me, an’ I know ye’ve got good reason ter be, but I ain’t a bad man. If me bein’ with whores bothers ye, then I won’t see them no more. Hell, I haven’t seen any of them, not in a long time.”
“Ye’ve reformed that much?” she asked, one eyebrow arching.
“Ye could say that.” It’d be a lie, but ye could say it. The truth was, of course, that he had neither time, money nor energy to be wasting on ladies of the night. But Joyce didn’t need to know that. And even if he had more time and energy if she was around to help him, with the fields and with the house and with Leah, it wasn’t like he’d have that much more money — unless she got a job — and even if she did, Berach wasn’t such a low-down piece of dirt to have a good time with whores using his wife’s wages. “An’ — an’ I know ye were angry about Leah — but if ye jest gave her a chance — oh, ye’d love her, Joyce. She’s — well, she’s not exactly a sweet girl, she’s got too much of me temper fer that, but she’s a funny one, an’ once she decides she likes ye, she’ll stick to yer side like a burr and is always ready with a big ol’ smile fer ye …”
“Sounds like ye don’t need no other woman in yer life.”
“That ain’t true an’ ye know it,” Berach replied. “Look, I’m not sayin’ ye have ter agree ter this today an’ we’ll get married on yer birthday before ye’ve really had a chance ter think it over … I’m jest askin’ ye ter think about it. Ye’ll see soon enough, how stiflin’ it is, livin’ at yer ma an’ pa’s house when ye’re ready ter be an adult, and ye know damn well that yer ready ter be an adult.”
“Who says that I have ter stay with me ma an’ da after I turn eighteen?” Joyce replied, almost smirking.
“Come now, I know yer pa. There ain’t no way he’s gonna let ye move out on yer own.”
“Ye sure about that?”
“Ye’d be a young woman alone — no matter how firm yer da is about teachin’ ye ter stand on yer own two feet, that’s different from a young man alone. Ye’d be exposed ter dangers that no young man would face. An’ it don’t matter how smart an’ capable ye are in every-day life, if ye’re up against someone stronger than ye are — physically stronger, I mean …” He shook his head. “Yer pa wouldn’t let ye be exposed to that.”
“Oh, really?” she asked. The smirk was even more pronounced, and Berach’s stomach started to sink within him. “What if I told ye that me da as good as told me that I’d have ter find me own place when I turned eighteen?”
“An’ what if,” Joyce continued, “I told ye that I’d already found me a place, a nice cottage all snug and cozy, an’ furnished, too, an’ that the property manager said I could move in as soon as I turned eighteen?”
“Where would ye get the money?” Berach asked desperately.
“What if I told ye,” Joyce answered, “that Master Chevaux — Pierre’s da — helped me get a job with a dance troupe, and not only have I been workin’ after school an’ savin’ me coppers, but once I get done with school, I’ll be workin’ full time, on a regular wage?”
“So — so …”
“So I don’t need ter marry nobody ter be an adult,” Joyce concluded, leaning back with her arms crossed over her chest, her whole body asking, So what do ye think of that, hmm? “I’m fine jest by meself.”
Berach leaned back, his face falling.
“But — Berach …” Was it his imagination, or was Joyce’s voice almost — gentle? “Come on, it ain’t like ye still want me. A shrew like me? I’m better off on me own, and ye’re better off findin’ some nice girl who will be a good ma fer Leah.”
Berach slowly shook his head.
“Ye — ye don’t still want me, do ye?”
“Ye were me last hope,” he whispered.
“Now ye’re just bein’ melo–melo–me-lo-dra-mat-ic. Even when I said I was gonna go after ye with the clippin’ shears, I never thought that ye’d never find a woman who’d be with ye!”
“No, no, it ain’t that …” Why was he even saying this? “Ye were me last hope to keep me house. Me dignity.”
“Yer — wait, what, ye’re losin’ yer house?”
He shook his head. “Never mind — it — it don’t matter.” He tried to smile, and somehow found the courage to reach out and pat her hand. “Ye — I hope ye have good luck, ye hear? An’ ye enjoy that little cottage o’ yours. But … ye’ll be fine, I know ye will. Ye’re a sharp girl.” And — not having the courage to so much as take his leave of her — he got up, quickly, and beat a quick retreat to the exit of the marketplace.
He didn’t look back. If he had, he would have seen Joyce get up and follow him. He would have seen the way she raised her hand, as if she would call to him.
But perhaps it was just as well that he didn’t look back. For though she raised her hand, she didn’t call out. And though she watched him go, in the end, she let him leave.