Billy Thatcher slowly opened the rusty iron gate and peeked his head inside the yard. Good – not a soul in sight. Quick as an owl’s dive upon a mouse, he dashed into the deserted yard, the gate left ajar behind him.
His footfalls barely made any sound against the cushy spring grass. There was no frost, no snow to mark his footsteps, not even a great deal of churned-up mud. As for the grass itself, it sprang back into place as soon as Billy moved to the next spot. No, there would be nothing here to mark his passage.
For a lithe, agile nine-year-old such as he, the sprint from the gate to his destination took no time at all. Before he knew it, he was sitting down cross-legged before his goal. “Hello, Pa,” he said. “I’ve come to visit ye.”
The grave was covered with new, green grass; even a few flowers were mixed in. Meanwhile, the flowers in the bowl were as fresh and lively as ever. His mother, or maybe one of his sisters, must have crept to the grave to water them when Billy wasn’t paying attention. Not that that would be hard; Roma and Ella both got home from school two hours before he did, and his mother only had to leave the house when somebody was going to have a baby.
Billy wiggled his rear and tried to get comfortable on the ground, which, despite the grass, still gave off winter’s chill. “I know it’s been a long time since I’ve come,” he remarked to the grave, “but I’ve been real busy. We all have.”
He paused, what to tell first? “Everythin’s goin’ fine in school,” he decided, knowing that if his father could talk to him, that would be the first question he would ask. “The other kids are a lot of fun, sometimes. Sometimes they’re just brats. But that’s how it goes, ain’t it, Pa?” He pushed a hand through his messy brown hair. His mother swore that he had his pa’s hair, but Billy couldn’t remember a time before his pa’s hair had been mostly gray. Still, if she was right, it was nice to know that something of his pa lived on in him.
“I know ye’re gonna want ter know about marks an’ stuff, an’ truth ter tell is … eh, they’re all right. I’m tryin’ ter learn, I am, but it’s hard sometimes. We’re all in one big classroom, ye know, the big ones an’ the little ones all together, an’ it’s sometimes hard ter make out what the teacher is sayin’. An’ she’s got ter run around like a chicken with her head cut off ter teach the little ones their figures, and then check over the older one’s pen-man-ship on whatever they’re writin’, and then she’s got ter look over what us middle-ones are doin’ with our readin’ … it’s hard fer her, it is. I think that’s why none of us learn much. An’ when she does try ter teach us, a lot of it’s useless naggin’, like ‘don’t say ain’t’ an’ tellin’ us that sayin’, ye know, ‘Bran an’ me went to the store’ is wrong. Not sure how it’s wrong, though,” Billy mused. “She ain’t never really told us that. Anyway, most of the older kids are talkin’ about quittin’ school most of the time, since they don’t learn nothin’ and they could make a lot more money if they worked in the mornings and not just the afternoons.”
Billy bit his lip, would his father want to hear this next part? Or would he be angry, like Kata had been when Ella and Roma first brought it up? “Pa — please don’t get mad, but Ella an’ Roma, they’re wantin’ ter quit school, too. They say it’s ’cause — ’cause — well, ’cause you ain’t around no more, an’ they want ter make sure we have enough money. But Ma says they don’t know they’re talkin’ about. She says that she never got a chance fer an — an ed-u-cay-shun, an’ so Roma an’ Ella should be glad they do an’ take as much as they can get. Besides, Roma’s only got to stick it out fer one more year before she gets married and can’t go to school no more.”
Billy paused. “Oh, that’s right, I didn’t tell ye, did I? Roma’s got a young man. His name is Simon, Simon Chevaux. Did ye know him? He’s over at the house all the time now, talkin’ with Roma an’ stuff.
“They’re really dumb together. I mean, he’ll tell bad jokes an’ she’ll jest laugh an’ laugh. At least I think they’re bad, I mean, I never get ’em, an’ ye always used ter say that if ye gotta explain a joke, it ain’t funny. Didn’t ye, Pa?” Billy smiled. “But Simon won’t even explain his jokes ter me. He’ll jest say I’ll get ’em when I’m older. Roma won’t explain ’em, either, an’ that’s jest mean.”
He hesitated. “Ye know, maybe I shouldn’t have said that they were gettin’ married. ‘Cause we don’t know that fer certain-sure. I mean, that’s what Ma wants, and that’s what his Ma wants — the old Mistress Chevaux, ye remember her? Not the young an’ pretty one. The old hag.” Billy shook his head. “I think she’d drag Simon an’ Roma ter a church tomorrow if she could, but Ma says it ain’t allowed, ’cause Roma’s too young. An’ Ma keeps sayin’, she ain’t gonna make Roma marry no-one she don’t want ter marry, but anyone can tell that she wants Roma married real bad.
“I don’t know why, though. If Roma gets married next year, then Ma will be left alone with jest me an’ Ella. An’ while I’m ok, Ella is really silly. She says that Simon’s a — a ‘hot commodity,’ whatever that means, an’ Roma should snap ‘im up while she has a chance. I don’t know why, though. When I axed Ella, all she would give me was silly reasons.” Knowing that his father always wanted him to be specific, he continued, “Like how Simon’s so handsome, with that beard an’ all. I don’t think it looks handsome, I think it looks like he don’t know how to shave, but nobody listens ter me.”
Billy bit his lip. “Ella says other things too. Like how Simon is really big an’ strong, so she’s sure lots o’ other girls like ‘im. An’ he brings Roma pretty little gifts, so she says he’s got money an’ that’s never bad. That’s the only part Ma agrees with, by the way. That Simon’s got money. She says he’s got a good job an’ good prospects, an’ Roma … well, Roma ain’t usually around when she’s talkin’ about ‘im like that, ’cause Ma says she don’t want ter sway Roma one way or the other. But whenever she says that, sometimes Roma jest laughs, an’ sometimes she looks really worried. I wonder why?
“Oh — an’ Ella keeps axin’ Roma how good a kisser Simon is. See what I mean, how she’s so silly? Roma won’t answer. I don’t think she knows. I only ever seen Simon kissin’ her cheek, anyway.
“Pa, what’s ‘jailbait’?” Billy asked, his mind veering off-topic for a second. “‘Cause Ella saw Simon kissin’ Roma’s cheek once, an’ she axed him, why don’t ye go no further? An’ Simon said it was because Roma was jailbait. An’ Ella laughed an’ laughed when he said that. Roma jest blushed. An’ I tried ter ax ’em ter explain it, an’ no one would, not even Ma, cause she looked right scared when she heard what Simon said, at least until Simon told ‘er it was jest a joke. See what I mean about his jokes not bein’ funny? So I was hopin’ that ye … Oh. That’s right. Ye can’t.”
Billy blinked away the water that welled in his eyes, and threw himself backward on the grass to look at the sky and the clouds, and not the suddenly cold and distant headstone. He gulped a couple times, wiped his eyes with his sleeve, and started to talk again. The lump in his throat was hard to get around, but it would pass, it always did.
“Honestly, I don’t get why Ella don’t jest marry ‘im if she likes ‘im so much. But she says Roma likes ‘im a lot, a lot more an’ she does — she says she jest likes ter tease ‘im. An’ that she’s in love with Lukas Pelles.” Billy rolled his eyes. “Pa, I hope I never fall in love. People in love are jest silly. I know I said Roma an’ Simon was dumb, but Ella an’ Lukas, they jest take the cake.”
“He takes her out all the time, or at least all the time when he can get off. ‘Cause he works his lord’s lands in the afternoons, jest like Ella works Sir Lancelot’s. I guess I shouldn’t mind, though, ’cause when they’re out, they ain’ in, an’ I don’t have ter listen ter them.
“I know I sound mean, Pa, an’ I’m tryin’ not to, but those two together — well, like Ma says, it’d try the patience of a saint. Except she don’t say that about Ella an’ Lukas. She says they’re young an’ in love an’ that’s jest what people in love do, an’ I’ll understand when I get older. Ha! I’ll never get that!
“Lemme tell ye, Pa, jest what they do when they’re around together. Lukas will say somethin’ stupid, like how Ella’s hair looks nice or her dress is really pretty (when it’s the same dress she wears every day), an’ she’ll giggle an’ say somethin’ like, ‘Aw, ye’re too sweet.’ An’ then Lukas will say, ‘No, ye are,’ and Ella will say back, ‘No, ye are’ an’ they’ll jest go on an’ on an’ on with it! Argh! An’ Ma an’ Roma, if they’re around, they’ll jest nudge each other an’ giggle! They’re almost as bad as Ella.
“Only almost, though. ‘Cause no one could be as bad as Ella. Ye know, she takes flowers an’ pulls the petals off, sayin’, ‘He loves me, he loves me not’? An’ if she says ‘he loves me not’ on the last petal, she freaks out an’ goes runnin’ fer another flower ter kill! Why, Pa? Why are girls so silly?”
Billy rested his head on his arm and watched the clouds slowly trace their way across the sky. “Oh — another thing, Pa. I don’t know why she keeps axin’ Roma about Simon’s kissin’. ‘Cause Lukas don’t kiss her, either, except on the cheek, jest like Simon does fer Roma. Is — is kissin’ somethin’ yer not supposed ter do until ye’re married or somethin’? But if it is, why is Ella thinkin’ that Simon’s kissin’ Roma?
“Maybe it’s jest ’cause they’re older an’ she thinks they’re doin’ it because of that?
“Anyway, enough about Ella. She’s so silly it makes me feel silly, jest talkin’ about her — an’ not in no good way, either. So … hmm. Ye probably want ter know about Ma, don’t ye?”
Billy wiggled and stretched, buying himself time as he tried to think of the best way to explain the conundrum that was his mother. “Well, I know ye’d be worried-like, about money an’ all, so I want ter say — don’t be. Ma’s been doin’ real well. Ye know, Sir Bors gave her a bag o’ silver fer when she delivered Lady Claire’s twins? O’ course, it wasn’t a big bag, it was only half the size o’ the one Ma got when she delivered Mistress Rosette’s twins. But Ma says we won’t have to worry about money fer a good long time.
“Oh — Pa, ye remember how last time, I axed ye if ye knew where Ma hid the babies — I mean, the ones she delivers. Because, ye know, she sure ain’t keepin’ them at the house an’ she’s got ter keep ’em somewhere if she’s deliverin’ them ter the folks houses. So, one night, when she was in a good mood, I axed her. An’ … well …” Billy made a face. “I guess there’s two kinds o’ deliverin’. One when ye bring some tools or some fruit or some cloth ter a friend’s house, an’ one fer … well, what Ma does with the babies. She told me all about the second one, an’ it’s gross! Ugh! I’m glad I’m a man, or I will be someday, Pa, an’ I don’t need ter ever deal with that!
“But, other than money … I don’t know, Pa, I’m afraid Ma ain’t doin’ so good. I think she’s lonely. She spends a lot o’ time with the kittens. Oh, didn’t I tell ye? Babs had kittens!
“She had ’em a little bit after Huckleberry died. Ella says that they’re one last gift from Huckleberry, an’ Ma says not ter count on it, ’cause when cats go inter heat they’ll do it with anyone. So I axed Ma, ‘what d’ye mean, ‘inter heat’?’ ’cause I didn’t want ter make no more mistakes like I did with deliverin’. An’ ye know what Ma says? She says it’s what happens a few months before she has ter go deliverin’ a baby! Ugh! I didn’t ax no more … which is kinda dumb, I think, now, ’cause I never did find out what Babs is supposed ter have done that gave her the kittens. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t, though, ’cause anythin’ that leads to Ma havin’ ter deliver a baby can’t be good.
“Anyway. Other than the kittens, Ma seems really sad sometimes. She seems really, really sad around bedtime, most of the time. An’ she won’t go ter bed until all of us are already asleep. Or at least until I’m asleep. I dunno if she waits fer Roma an’ Ella. Sometimes, when I’m tryin’ ter get ter sleep, I hear her hectorin’ ’em — well, Ella, mostly — tellin’ her that she’s got a long day tomorrow, with school an’ work an’ everythin’, an’ she needs ter get ter sleep.
“An’ — an’ the other night, when she thought I was asleep, she tucked me in, an’ — well, that didn’t make me feel uneasy none. ‘Cause I know she does that, sometimes. Ye — ye used ter do it, too, I know.” Billy gulped.
“It was what she said that made me feel uneasy. ‘Cause she was talkin’ about how she loved me an’ how she wanted m ter know that, whatever happened, she was always gonna do the best she could fer me. An’ how she’d do everythin’ she could not ter leave me before I was a man, but — but …” Billy took a deep breath. “Pa, I don’t like axin’ this as a favor — but could ye — could ye talk ter the Lord Wright, an’ ax him not take Ma fer a good long time? ‘Cause, ’cause it’s bad enough jest missin’ ye, an’ if we had ter miss ye an’ Ma I don’t know …”
Billy rubbed his eyes with a grubby, earthy hand. “Besides, if somethin’ happened ter Ma, an’ it was after Roma got married — we’d all probably have ter go live with Simon. UGH!
“Anyway, that’s pretty close ter it. Other than the garden. It’s growin’ again, bein’ spring an’ all. An’ it’s lookin’ really, really good. I think it’s ’cause o’ me, honestly. ‘Cause aye, Ma an’ Roma an’ Ella help with the weedin’ an’ the plantin’ an’ the waterin’, but ye wanna know what, Pa? I’m the one what does the talkin’ ter the plants, like ye said ter do. I talk about the birds an’ the bugs an’ the sun an’ the rain, jest like ye said. An’ it’s workin’! Ma says that if they keep growin’ the way they do, we might have our best crop ever!
“So, ye see, ye taught me well. An’ we’re gonna be all right, we really are. We’re gettin’ stronger an’ stronger, an’ the plants are growin’ fine, an’ we’ve got plenty of money ter last us fer a good long bit. So we’re fine, really. An’ we’ll keep bein’ fine.”
Billy sat up and addressed the headstone directly. “Ye see, Pa, I don’t want ye ter worry none about us. Brother Tuck says that up in heaven, everyone’s supposed ter be happy an’ singin’ an’ laughin’ all the time, but I know ye couldn’t be, if ye were worried about us. But Roma an’ Ella an’ me are doin’ fine, an’ I think if ye ax the Lord Wright ter make sure Ma stays here a good long time, an’ ye somehow tell her that ye fixed this up, she’ll be doin’ all right too.
“We miss ye, Pa, we miss ye a lot — but we’re all gonna be all right.”