It was getting near the growing season again. Marigold could feel it in the air, in the trees, in the very earth beneath her feet. If she walked barefoot through the grass or mud, she could feel the plants beginning to thrum with energy, the earth starting to wake up, the earthworms and beetles and creepy-crawly things starting to get back to their work of preparing the soil for next spring. Unfortunately, Marigold could not walk barefoot at this point in time, because she rather liked having ten toes and it would be a pity to lose one of them to frostbite.
Yes, in a world full of change and uncertainty, there was one thing Marigold knew in her whole being: Spring was coming. Life was returning to the world. And as for the three feet of snow on the ground, it was lying. She hummed as she spread her own special mixture of table scraps, spoiled food, and other waste onto the ground.
“Marigold, can I talk to ye?”
Marigold looked up. “O’course, Erin …” She gave the other woman a quick, curious glance. Erin was smiling, not a real smile, she hadn’t smiled one of one of those since the day they took Wulf away. But it wasn’t as patently false as some of her other smiles. This one … Erin was trying to deceive Marigold that everything was all right, but she was also trying to deceive herself.
Well, if she’s tryin’ ter tell herself that everything’s all right, then at least she ain’t thinkin’ o’ throwin’ herself into the ocean … “What do ye need?”
“I …” Erin tilted her head to one side. “Marigold, what are ye doin’?”
“Preparin’ the soil, o’ course! I should be able to begin ter begin plantin’ within a couple weeks. Jest gotta give this stuff some time ter settle in before I do.”
Erin looked about her at the snow, one eyebrow arched over her eye, but she said nothing. The girls knew, after ten years together, not to argue with Marigold when it came to this sort of thing. She’d been right too many times.
Still, if Erin could come out of herself and her problems long enough to doubt Marigold’s wisdom on this subject … Marigold felt a grin begin to tease the corners of her lips. Erin was getting better and things were returning to normal, just as winter was turning the corner into spring. She just knew it!
“Well, if you say so,” Erin replied. She took a deep breath, crossed her arms before her chest and hunched her shoulders together, as if she was trying to shield herself from a verbal or physical blow. With no more preparation, she plunged into her recital. “Marigold, I know — I know ye’ve been wonderin’ where I’ve been goin’ most days. It were wrong o’ me not to tell ye before this, but I — ye have ter understand, I didn’t want ter be talking about it.”
“I shan’t lie, Erin, ye had us all worried,” Marigold replied, trying to keep the smile on her face and praying that whatever Erin was going to say, it would not be the prelude to a catastrophe. Well, she can’t have kidnapped a baby, like Tambu was afraid of — she couldn’t have hidden a baby without us knowing! And she obviously ain’t made away with herself. “But ye’ve got a right to privacy — if ye didn’t want ter tell, well, that was yer business. However, if ye’re ready to tell me now …”
“Aye. I am, I am.”
Marigold held her breath and, behind her back, crossed her fingers that this wouldn’t be anything too earth-shattering.
“On — on all those days when I wandered off, I was — I was at the nunnery orphanage.”
“I didn’t get ter see Wulf or nothing,” Erin said. “Not at first. It — it wasn’t until about a month or so ago that the head nun there, Sister Margery, came out an’ axed me what I wanted.”
“She — she what?”
“Came out and axed me what I wanted. An’ — an’ so I told her I wanted ter see Wulf.”
Erin didn’t bother to repeat what she had said this time. “She let me see him, Marigold. An’ — an’ more than that — she told me that if I clean up me act, I can have him back.”
“What d’ye mean — clean up yer act?” Marigold asked, though the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach told her that she already knew the answer.
“Stop bein’ a whore, find respectable work an’ a good home, stick with it fer a year ter prove I can care for Wulf, an’ then … an’ then I can have him back.”
“And — and ye …?”
“I’m doin’ it.”
“Marigold, I’m sorry, but –” Erin shook her head. “It’s the only way I’m gettin’ Wulf back.”
“I know that, Erin, an’ I …” No, Marigold couldn’t say that. She just couldn’t. She couldn’t lie to Erin and tell her that she understood how she felt. Marigold knew where her Thorn was, and was positive he was in better hands than hers. She could see Thorn whenever she wanted. More than that, she had never had Thorn torn from her arms.
“Erin, let me put it like this — are ye sure ye can trust these people? I mean, assumin’ ye’re even able ter find a job an’ all, considerin’ –”
“I already found one, Marigold. I start next week.”
“… Ye what?”
“I start next week. I’ve found a little apartment, too — it’s the upper two floors of an old mill. Plenty of room fer me an’ Wulf.”
“A — a what? Erin, how’d ye do that! Ye ain’t got no money!”
Erin swallowed. “I indentured meself to Lord Pellinore. As — as part of the deal, he gave me some ter fix meself up in a nice place. It’s — it’s what all the lords here do for their indentured men an’ women, when they start off on their own.”
“Erin, ye’re kiddin’.”
“But — but –”
“I hope ye can understand, Marigold. It ain’t — it ain’t because of anythin’ ye did. I’d love ter stay here if I could. An’ I know ye an’ the other girls would have been great aunties to Wulf. But — me choices are stay here an’ be miserable, thinkin’ of Wulf, or leavin’, an’ at least havin’ a hope. At least havin’ him with me. Ye understand that, don’t ye?”
“No, Erin, no, I don’t,” Marigold snapped. “It ain’t the bit about Wulf — that I — that I can place meself in yer shoes fer. It’s the fact that ye’re lettin’ them win that I don’t understand!”
“I’m jest tryin’ ter get me son back!”
“Ye shouldn’t have to! They never should have took that boy in the first place!”
“So? They did!”
“An’ now ye’re jest givin’ in ter them so they’ll put right what never should have been put wrong in the first place! Listen ter me, Erin, I know — I know ye was brought up by right religious people–”
“Don’t bring me folks into this.”
“I ain’t gonna. I’m jest pointin’ somethin’ out to ye. Ye were probably taught, as a young ‘un, that the Church is supposed to be good, supposed ter be nice. Supposed ter be there to help. Well, I’ve got news fer ye: it ain’t. If the Church is supposed ter be so good an’ kind, how come Brother Tuck goes up to that pulpit every week an’ calls all the curses o’ hell on us? How come he calls me an’ me brother Ash demons? Look, I don’t pretend ter know everythin’ about good an’ evil, but I know one thing — Ash an’ me aren’t no demons! Especially not Ash! He’s a good man if there ever was one!”
“Of course I know that!”
“No, ye don’t, not if ye’re thinkin’ about jumpin’ our ship an’ swimming over ter theirs! Ye know what they’re gonna do as soon as ye prove ye can take care o’ Wulf, don’t ye? They’re gonna call ye up to the pulpit one day ter talk, an’ ye’re gonna have to talk about how Brother Tuck ‘saved’ ye, how he was actin’ accordin’ ter the Will o’ Wright or whatever, an’ how gettin’ Wulf taken from ye was the best damned thing that ever happened to ye!”
“Marigold! Don’t be ridiculous! I’d never say that!”
“What if they threatened ter take Wulf from ye again if ye didn’t?”
Erin froze. Then, “That won’t happen,” she announced. “An’ I’ll run away ter Reme if they try.”
“Not if ye’ve got yerself a lord, like ye say ye do. If ye’ve got a lord, guess what? Ye can’t run!”
“That — that –” Erin gulped. “Well, then I’d got ter Lord Pellinore! He — he seems a good man! He won’t let them take Wulf away from me fer — fer not wantin’ ter lie in a church!”
“Bah, why not? The monks an’ nuns do it every day!”
“Marigold! That — that’s jest too much!” Erin tossed her hair over her shoulder. Her angry snort blew twin trails of steam from her nostrils. “Look, I know ye ain’t feelin’ too charitable about Brother Tuck — hell, I wouldn’t be cryin’ no tears if he got hit by a runaway coach tomorrow! — but he ain’t the whole Church! Sister Margery — she’s a good woman, she is! She said she jest wanted ter give Wulf back ter me, but couldn’t ’cause she’d get in trouble!”
“Sure, she said that. That’s how they bring ye in, Erin! They’ve got some nice folk, they lie–hell, maybe they tell the truth to ye, or at least what they think is the truth, an’ then–”
“Shut up, Marigold! Ye’re doin’ the same thing ter the Church folk that they do to ye an’ Ash, ye know that?!” Erin stuck her hands on her hips and glowered. “Tarrin’ ’em all with the same brush, ye are! Aye, there are right arse-holes in the Church, ye’ll never catch me denyin’ it! But there are good Sims there, too. An’ it ain’t fair that ye think they’re all arse-holes ’cause of some o’ them are!”
“It ain’t the same! Me an’ Ash can’t help bein’ what we are! The Church folks can help bein’ arse-holes!”
“An’ Sister Margery is helpin’ that — ye want ter be mad at ‘er ’cause she ain’t no arse-hole?” Erin snapped. “Look, I jest wanted ter tell ye because — because I thought it was right. Because I didn’t want ye to worry none. But the fact is, ye’ve always said we were free ter go whenever we wanted to. Well, I’ve got a job, I’ve got an apartment, an’ I wanna go. I leave in three days. Don’t worry none, I’ll be workin’ until then — so ye ain’t losing no money by me until I leave.” Erin turned to stomp through the snow-covered orchard, back into the house.
She thinks … she thinks it’s because of the money? was all Marigold could wonder as she watched her go.
The next three days were as cold and frozen within the house as outside, at least as far as Erin and Marigold were concerned. The other women had taken Erin’s news in their unique ways. Tambu had taken Marigold’s side, begging Erin to change her mind, swearing that the Church folks couldn’t be trusted. “Erin, I’ve slept with one, I know they ain’t no more than snakes in the grass!” she had sworn. “Don’t put yerself into their power!”
Wei Li had taken things more philosophically. “If you think that you can care best for your child by taking care of him yourself, then that is what you must do,” she had said. “Me, I think my children are better off in hands other than mine. I am no good with children. But I am not you.” Her face had crumpled slightly when she finished. “I will miss you greatly, though. Promise me — you will visit?” To Wei Li Erin gave her new address, only asking her not to reveal it to any old customers if they asked after her. She didn’t need that kind of complication, and Wei Li understood.
Mirelle … Mirelle had shrugged. “If you want to sell out — that’s your business. Me, I have better things to do than rearrange my life so that it matches better with the hypocrites in their church.” She hadn’t said she would miss Erin, or that she would visit. But perhaps that was for the best. Wei Li, Tambu, Marigold she could think of some way to explain to her new neighbors … but what if Mirelle decided to make a snack of some of Erin’s neighbors?
So, three days later, in the early hours before dawn so that Mirelle could there, Erin took a deep breath and tried to say her good-byes.
“I know ye all ain’t happy about me leavin’,” she began. “But I jest want ye all to know — it ain’t because o’ ye. No, it ain’t because of none of ye. I love ye all, ye know that? Ye’re — we’re sisters. More like sisters than either o’ me real sisters ever were — well, the ones that were still livin’ when I left Glasonland,” Erin concluded, her voice trailing off.
“Ye — some of ye think that I’m walkin’ in ter a trap. That I’m sellin’ out. I — I don’t know whether ye’re right or not. But this past year, it’s been hell. And maybe it is better ter be in the hell ye know rather than the hell ye don’t — but I don’t know that until I try it. Don’t — don’t ye see that if I ever thought that what I had was better than what I might have, simply because I had it, I’d have never come here — to ye?”
Erin tried to swallow the lump in her throat away. “An’ ye all — I know most folks act like becomin’ a whore is the worst thing that can happen to a woman, but they’re lyin’. It ain’t. It can’t be. Because ye, all ye — up until Wulf, ye all were the best thing that ever happened ter me.”
“Your life before this must have been singularly miserable–ouch!” Mirelle glared at Tambu.
“It was. I won’t lie,” Erin shrugged. “If I could have Wulf an’ ye, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But I can’t. An’ Wulf needs me, an’ I need ‘im.”
“Oh, Erin, stop talking and hug me!” Wei Li finally cried out.
Before Erin was quite aware of what was happening, Wei Li’s arms were wrapped around her neck. “You be careful out there. I know they say that we are the lowlifes, the ones to watch out for, but those people, they lie. They are more dangerous than we could ever be.”
Erin believed that.
“And you will visit, right? Promise us you’ll visit!”
“If — if it’s all right with Marigold — aye, I’ll drop by from time ter time.”
Wei Li nodded and stepped back. Next were Mirelle and Tambu.
With Mirelle, it was a merely perfunctory embrace, and Erin did her best keep her neck away from her former co-worker’s incisors. Tambu’s hug was longer. “Ye’ll be fine,” Tambu managed to say, her voice husky and faltering. “I remember when we first took ye in, what a half-starved an’ scrawny runaway brat ye were. An’ ye survived. Ye’ll survive anythin’. Jest — don’t ferget where ye came from, please?”
And then it was Marigold.
To Erin’s shock, there were torrents of tears trailing down Marigold’s cheeks — and the leaves atop her head were turning a sad yellow color! “Aw, don’t cry, Marigold! I ain’t goin’ far–”
Marigold didn’t let her say anything more. She grabbed her and held her close. “If ye need anythin’,” she managed to say, finally, “ye come to us, ye hear? If those Church folks turn on ye — ye’ve got friends here. Friends who won’t let ye down, no matter what.”
“Aye, I know,” Erin said. “That’s what makes leavin’ so hard.”