“Ye look good, Berach.”
“Thank’ee, Ma. Ye ain’t lookin’ too bad yerself.”
Mother and son embraced, and mother pulled back to look at son. “I never thought this place would agree with ye so!”
“Well, to be honest, Ma, it ain’t the place — it’s jest that — well …” Berach shrugged. “Things are goin’ well, I guess.”
Lilé’s eyebrows went up. “Oh? And would ‘things’ have anythin’ ter do with young Joyce?”
“Oh, stop with that look, Ma — ye’re actin’ like Cerise Chevaux, ye are.”
“Wright forbid! I’d never do to ye what she’s doin’ ter Simon!”
“Aye, aye, I heard — Simon told me all about it.” Berach shook his head. “His ma’s nuts. Tryin’ ter get Simon ter settle before he’s good an’ ready is only axin’ fer trouble. Fer him an’ fer that poor girl.”
“I know, I know, I was axin’ Kata, just the other day, what she was thinkin’.”
“Hmm?” Berach said, that being all he really could say. He didn’t know Kata very well: her children were a good few years younger than he was, and he was neither a female of childbearing age nor married to a female of childbearing age. She and Lilé were friends, he knew that, and he’d met her when she would come over to tea with his mother and when Toinette was having Katie. But none of those occasions, particularly the latter, were conducive to building a friendship between a teenage boy and one of his mother’s friends.
Lilé normally wasn’t one for gossip, but perhaps she just wanted to talk about something — anything — to someone who appeared to be listening. Wright knew she didn’t get enough of that at home, and while Ailís was a good listener, she had a toddler and a new baby and Lilé’s visits with her were probably taken up with baby-talk. “Well, I’m thinkin’ she’s awfully spooked, over what happened ter Jeremiah. An’ she kept axin’ me, while I was tryin’ ter talk her out of it, ‘What if somethin’ happens ter me? Who’s gonna take care of me kids? If Roma’s married then at least Ella an’ Billy can go stay with her until they’re grown enough ter be out on their own.’ ‘Cause she don’t think Lyndsay an’ Ash could her little ones in, bein’ as Lyndsay’s in the family way again an’ the standin’ plan is, if Marigold gets in the family way, ter run her kids over ter Ash’s house before Brother Tuck figures out there’s been one born.”
Berach shuddered. He’d heard the complete story, or as near to complete a story as he was likely to get, of what happened with the whore Erin’s child from Pierre. And though he’d not said much at the time, it had terrified him more than he cared to admit. He had conceived Leah in sin — what if …?
He wouldn’t think about that. Couldn’t think about that. And so, he leapt upon a distraction. “Care ter see Leah?”
Lilé laughed. “Oy! If that’s yer way of sayin’, ‘Shut up, Ma, I don’t care nothin’ about yer gossip, I must say ye’re a tactful young man. O’course I’d love ter see Leah.”
Berach led the way into the nursery. “Papa!” She held out her arms to him.
But it was Lilé who picked her up. “Come here, you say hello to Grandma first.”
“Be a good girl fer Grandma, Leah — and Wright, but ye make a mess …”
“She’s her papa’s girl, all right,” Lilé said as Leah watched Berach put her toys away. “Come on, now, sweet, look at Grandma. I don’t get ter see ye everyday, like Papa does.”
Leah turned around and fixed a big smile on Lilé. “Hiya, Grandma!”
“Hello, Leah!” Lilé bounced the little one. “Are you having a birthday soon!”
“How old are ye gonna be?”
“Three!” And she held up three chubby fingers.
“Wow! That’s almost a whole hand!”
Leah grinned. Oh, she knew that.
“But ye know how old yer cousin Katie is?”
Leah shook her head.
“She’s seven,” Lilé replied. “That means one whole hand,” Lilé held her hand up, “an’ two extra fingers.” She collapsed three of the fingers on that spare hand so only two were up.
Leah’s eyes were inherited from her mother, and as such were almond-shaped, longer, or so they appeared, than they were wide. But this time, her eyes grew wide and round as a pair of plump tomatoes. “Papa, when can I be seven?”
“Don’t make her want ter grow up any faster than she is already! Wright! An’ as fer ye, young missy …” Berach kissed Leah’s forehead. “Ye can be seven in four years, an’ not a minute before.”
“Don’t worry,” Lilé whispered as she and Leah followed Berach into the kitchen. “Ye’ll be six in only three years, an’ that’s two hands, too.”
Leah clapped her hands and squealed.
Lilé set Leah down by her drawing and block table and joined Berach at the kitchen table. “Ye’re doin’ a mighty fine job with that girl — ye know that, don’t ye?” she asked.
“Aw, Ma, I’m jest doin’ the best I can.”
“The best ye, one person, can is a damned sight better than what two people’s best can be — not that I’m namin’ names or nothin’. Jest sayin’.”
Berach couldn’t help it — the right corner of his lip kept poking up. “Thank — thank’ee, Ma. That means a lot, comin’ from ye.”
Lilé didn’t seem to hear him; she just looked beyond Berach’s head, at the intently drawing Leah, and smiled. “Ye can tell when a little one is happy, ye know,” she said. “They jest light up a whole room. Nellie’s like that, an’ Katie an’ Paddy were too. O’course Sean and Josie’re both too little ter do much in that line, and Nora …”
“What’s wrong with Nora?” asked Berach.
“Katie an’ Paddy an’ — aye, even Sean, that’s what’s wrong with her. Poor girl is … well, she ain’t a fighter, Berach. She’s a friendly little thing, not at all shy, but she’ll put up with whatever her older sibs throw at her. An’ believe me, they throw a lot. They’re like Grady, they are, an’ Cerise too — not afraid ter reach out an’ take what they want. While Nora … Nora’s like Edmond, she’ll put up with anythin’ and she’ll sit quiet in the corner, so as not to cause trouble.”
“Maybe she’s a bit like ye, Ma. Wright knows ye put up with hell from all of us. An’ Da, too.”
Lilé shook her head. “Naw … I had more spunk in me than Nora. Don’t ferget, I terrorized ye when ye an’ Ailís an’ Grady were little, as much as ye ever terrorized me!”
“Maybe there’s somethin’ in that. So what’s Sean doin’ that’s so bad by Nora?”
“Nothin’ that’s his fault, really, other than bein’ the baby, an’ bein’ colicky, an’ keepin’ Toinette busy keepin’ him happy an’ so she has less time an’ energy ter spend on Nora. An’ while Grady and yer father are theoretically there … well, yer pa was never good with little ones, an’ Grady is always busy with his shop …”
Meanin’ that Da and Grady are useless, as usual.
“An’ I try ter help, I really do, but by the time I get home — well, then Katie and Paddy are home, and somebody has ter keep them from raisin’ hell.”
An’ Da and Grady are useless fer that, too.
“That’s what makes ye so special, Berach. Ye can keep her happy, with just ye — whereas poor Nora has four of us, an’ we’re failin’ her.”
“Ye’ve got three other young ‘uns ter look after, ye know.”
“Aye, aye …” Lilé sighed. “Though — I’ll say this jest once, Berach, ye can’t do it by yerself ferever. Sooner or later, that girl’s gonna need a mother.”
“Ye promised ye wouldn’t do that ter me!”
“Hey, I ain’t findin’ some friend o’ mine with a girl o’ marriageable age an’ throwin’ her at yer head!” Lilé protested, throwing her hands in the air. “Though I can talk ter Kata if ye like, maybe she can bring Roma over–”
“Ma! She’s a kid!”
“I know, I know, I’m jest teasin’,” Lilé chuckled. “An’ I’m not gonna be like Cerise an’ not stop naggin’ ye until ye’ve gotten married. I’m jest sayin’. She’s a little girl, an’ someday she’s gonna be a young woman …”
“Not anytime soon!”
“Sooner than ye think, Berach.”
“No. No way. She’s gonna be little fer a good long time yet. I mean, look at her! She still nibbles on her crayons!”
Lilé turned around to see that Berach spoke nothing but the true. “Leah! Get that out of your mouth!”
Leah pouted but put the crayon back on the paper. “Sorry, Grandma.”
“She ain’t so bad as she used ter be,” Berach murmured. “Now she jest nibbles. I swear she used ter eat ’em whole.”
“Still! Do ye think she should be walkin’ around with teeth every color of the rainbow?”
“… Actually, that’s pretty darn funny when she smiles after she’s been nibblin’.”
“But it’s a bi–er, it ain’t fun ter clean. At all,” Berach back pedaled. “So all in all, I’m grateful that Joyce mostly got her out o’ that habit.”
“Oh, Joyce got her out o’ that, did she?” Lilé asked, as heavy clumping boots thudded across the apartment from the sleeping area — Clarence must have picked this ungodly hour to awaken.
“Don’t start! We’re friends, jest friends!”
“I’m jest sayin’ …”
“Well, if he only wants ter be yer friend, I’ll be more, ma’am.”
Berach looked up — Lilé too — to see Clarence giving Lilé the kind of look that — well, to be honest, the kind of look that Berach was afraid he gave Joyce when he wasn’t guarding himself.
Except … no, he could never see himself looking at Joyce like that. Lustfully, yes; all that dancing was doing wonderful things for her body, things Berach could make out even under her modest dress and apron. But not — not like this. Not like Joyce was a prime cut of steak and all he wanted to do was dig in. Not like Joyce was an innocent fawn separated from its mother and he a hungry wolf. Not so damned predatorily!
And even if Berach looked at Joyce like that — and he was sure he didn’t — he certainly wouldn’t look like that at a woman who was old enough to be his mother!
“Excuse me, young man?” Lilé asked, her eyebrow arching up in that you-better-not-have-said-what-I-thought-you-just-said-young-man manner.
“Aw, come on. Ye can do much better than this one,” Clarence replied. He leaned against the wall, his arms crossed before him. If the pose was supposed to be seductive … well, Berach was the wrong person to ask, but he had a feeling that even if Lilé wasn’t married and disinclined to be interested, it wouldn’t have worked.
“Clarence,” Berach snarled, “this is my mother.”
“Is that what they’re callin’ it, nowadays?” Clarence asked.
“Well,” Lilé remarked, “I knew my visit wouldn’t complete if I didn’t find somethin’ ter demand that ye change.” Lilé’s eyebrows went up.
If he didn’t pay half the rent, Ma, he would have been gone months ago.
“Papa? Grandma?” Leah asked.
“Wright above, even the brat’s in on it!”
Berach jumped to his feet. “Ye did not –” The only thing that kept him from running over to Clarence and clocking him was the uneasy knowledge that he did not want Leah’s first real memory would be that of her father getting pounded into the floor by his lodger.
Lilé rose, too, but she meant only to go to Leah and comfort her, Berach knew it–
Clarence, though, didn’t.
“Hey, where do ye think ye’re goin’, pretty lady?”
“Young man,” Lilé snapped, “I’m old enough ter be yer mother.”
“Naw, ye ain’t. Look at ye — barely a gray hair on yer head, an’ while, sure, ye’re figure ain’t the best–”
“Clarence, one more word out o’ yer skull an’ I swear–”
“Papa?” Leah called, her voice quavering.
“Jest a minute, sweetheart, Papa’s” about ter kick his lodger’s ass “jest got ter sort this out –”
“Aw, don’t bother explainin’, Berach, it ain’t like she understands –”
“I’ll show you what she don’t understand –”
“Ye really want ter be with a man like that?” Clarence asked. “He talks ter the little brat before he pays attention to the beautiful adult standin’ right in front o’ him–”
That, apparently, did it for Lilé. “Now, ye listen here an’ listen good, young man!” Lilé snapped. “Berach is my son! An’ I’m gettin’ everythin’ I need at home, with me husband, who, while Wright knows he has his faults, they don’t include hittin’ on women old enough ter have given birth to him!”
The expression on Clarence’s face — oh, Berach would have bet a weeks, no, a month’s pay that he had never been told off quite so decisively!
“An’ another thing!” Lilé went on, jabbing her finger against Clarence’s worn leather armor, “Don’t ye be gettin’ on my boy’s case fer takin’ care o’ his little girl! I know ye men have stupid ideas, about how takin’ care o’ a little one makes a man weak — well, I’ll tell ye somethin’! Any man who can look after a wee one an’ keep ’em happy an’ healthy an’ loved as well as Berach can is stronger ‘an the rest o’ his kind put together, he is! Women don’t take care o’ the little ones because the men are too good fer it, or because they have too many other things ter be doin’, or because they’re bored by it — women take care o’ the little ones because men, by an’ large, can’t handle it!”
“Wright, lady, if ye don’t shut up, I’ll –”
“Don’t ye start!” She jabbed her finger against his armor again. “Let me tell ye, I’ve raised three children an’ now I’m raisin’ four grandchildren — there ain’t nothin’ fer exercisin’ the voice like raisin’ kids! Ye say one more word in a threatening way, an’ I’ll be callin’ fer the town guards, an’ let me tell ye somethin’ — they’ll hear me, an’ they’ll come runnin’!”
Clarence stumbled backwards. “Ye wouldn’t do that!”
Clarence chose not to. Instead, he turned tail and it was up Berach and Lilé to watch him rush from the apartment.
“Wright,” Berach whispered. “I didn’t know it was so easy ter scare ‘im. If I’d have known that, I’d have done it months ago.”
Lilé didn’t answer. “Berach, ye’ve got ter get rid o’ that man. It ain’t wholesome, havin’ someone like that near a little one.”
Berach nodded. “I know, Ma, I know. Soon as I find someone else ter lodge with me, he’s gone.”
Berach thought that was the end of the matter. Clarence said nothing about the incident when he came back a day later. Indeed, to judge by his manner, nothing had happened.
If Berach had seen Clarence’s face as he ran out of the apartment, though — he never would have made that mistake.