“Well?” the woman demanded. “I’m here. What do ye want?”
How had he ever been taken in by her?
Brother Tuck took a deep breath as he took stock of the woman standing before him. He looked over her “fine” clothing (as fine as she could afford), her carefully braided hair, the gold earrings that might have been her dowry, had she not sold her virtue to some random passer-by, so many years ago. Or at least that was how Brother Tuck imagined it had happened. She was so depraved now, surely in her youth she had been no different.
He imagined how she looked to innocent, virtuous Sims who may decide to walk into the Church. They would think she was some prosperous peasant’s wife, or perhaps even a merchant’s wife. They would assume that she had children at home; they would think she worked hard all day and slept at night, except when husband or child or housework might require her tender care. Those Sims might smile at her, they might nod, they might even say “Good morning,” or “How are you?” They would think she was virtuous! They would think she was just like them! Brother Tuck’s stomach churned.
But this, all of this was a good sign. He had been tempted once, he had even succumbed to temptation — as all Sims did — but he would not be tempted again. Not by this she-devil, at any rate. For now he knew just what lurked beneath the smooth and silky-soft surface. Now he knew that she was not, as she claimed, who sold her body to get her bread because she had nothing else to sell. Perhaps, somewhere, there were women who could truly claim that. But not this one, or, even if she had begun her journey into sin that way — he doubted it, but it was possible — not now. For no woman who was merely desperate and at her wits’ end to keep body and soul together would do to him, and to an innocent child, what this woman had done to him and to that child.
So Brother Tuck took a deep breath, fixed the woman with his most icy glare, and demanded in a sort of razor-edged whisper, “Tara Abbot?”
He watched the woman’s face, but she barely blinked. “What about ‘er?” she asked.
“She’s yours, is she not?”
The woman eyed her fingernails. Brother Tuck wondered what might lurk beneath them. An honest woman got all sort of things under her fingernails in the course of an honest day’s work — bread crumbs, dirt from scrubbing her tables or her children, plant sap from her work in the fields. But this woman? What could possibly be beneath her nails? Nothing.
How odd, that the jobs that were most filthy left so little dirt on the surface … but only on the surface, Brother Tuck reminded himself. Beneath the skin, who knew what festering diseases might be making their way through her, even now?
“She’s in the nuns’ care now,” the woman replied, shrugging.
“You are her — no, like you said, she is in the nuns’ care now. So you are not her mother. But you gave birth to her, did you not?”
“What makes ye say that?”
He had looked over the records at the orphanage, though he had not had time to copy them, so he knew that young Tara was the offspring — Wright help that poor child — of the woman who stood before him. But he would not admit that. “She’s dark, like you.”
The woman snorted. “I’d say she’s nearer ter yer complexion.”
If he were not a man of Wright, he would have hauled the bitch off and slapped her! But he was a man of Wright, so he restrained himself to taking a step nearer to her and hissing, “I am not here to discuss that child’s resemblance to her — her father, whomever –”
“Since she’s in the care o’ the nuns now, an’ ye ain’t gonna say I’m her mother, I guess that means she don’t have no father, either, don’t it? Since he’s done even less fer that girl than I have.”
“So you admit that the child is yours!”
The woman shrugged. “I gave birth ter her. An’ then I gave her over ter the nuns.” The woman glared at him. “Because even if I’d been able ter be a proper mother ter her, ye wouldn’t have let me keep her, would ye have?”
“If you had been willing to forsake your sinful ways to care for the child properly, you would have had all of the support of the Church!”
Why did that make the woman smile? It was a cruel smile, the kind of smile the cat might give before it pounced on the mouse. Then it disappeared. “I wish I had a witness fer that.”
What the hell is that supposed to mean? But what did it matter; he had more important things with which to tax this woman. “You need not have a witness. Tell any of your — of your — of your fellow sinners what I said. Should they see the light of redemption shining from their child’s eyes, tell them to take the child and come directly to me, and I shall see to it that both mother and child are well cared for!”
“How? By makin’ her yer own private whore?”
“I dare? I dare? Let me tell ye somethin’, mister, I ain’t never broke no vows I swore ter anyone! I ain’t never promised I’d do one thing an’ then gone and done the opposite! And what’s more, I ain’t never gone up in front o’ hundreds an’ hundreds o’ people, pretendin’ I’m one thing, an’ all the while knowin’ I’m jest the opposite!”
She looked so vicious when she yelled! Her mouth was open, roaring, a tigress’s; her eyes narrowed and small, snake’s eyes. The way her nostrils flared, an angry bull beginning its charge … except, of course, if she were some bovine species, she would be a cow, not a bull. And cows did not charge.
A cow indeed she is. A cow demon. Brother Tuck had wondered, when he was a child, why it was that the most deadly enemy of the Lord Wright’s followers was called a cow demon, and not a bull demon. For were it now bulls that were the deadly half of the bovine species? Were it not bulls who charged and mauled and stomped upon the innocent Sims that crossed their paths? But now Brother Tuck understood. The demons were called cow demons simply because cows were female, and the female — no matter how winsome and innocent she may seem — was always deadlier than the male.
Look how this woman had nearly destroyed his soul!
“I do not pretend to be anything I am not,” Brother Tuck replied. “I am a sinner, just as any of them are, and I say as such.” He had spoken on the topic only this past Sunday. He had also spoken on the subject of judgment, and from that, blackmail had seemed to be an obvious corollary.
“So ye’re jest as bad as any of our johns are, eh?”
“If you ever bothered to care for your soul, and attend holy service, you would find that I am quite sympathetic to those poor, unfortunate Sims who are tempted once, or perhaps twice –”
“Or perhaps every frickin’ week until I start showin’ that I’m pregnant, an’ I ain’t attractive ter ye no more!”
“That — that had nothing to do with it!”
“Aw, don’t lie ter me. As if I care why ye decided ter stop takin’ the only goods I had fer sale without even payin’ — not payin’ in any way, I might add!”
“And how, pray tell, was I supposed to ‘repay’ you?”
“Ye were supposed ter get off me an’ my sisters’ backs! Ye were supposed ter let us earn our bread in peace!”
“Earn your bread? Are you mad? Every mouthful of bread you took was stolen from the mouths of virtuous wives and their legitimate children!”
“Stolen? Stolen? What in the nine level o’ hell–”
“Where do you think that money you say you ‘earned’ comes from? It comes from poor men who take money from their families in order to –”
“In order get their lusts out o’ their system. Theirs! Theirs! Listen ‘ere, it ain’t like we go an’ hold no knives to these men’s throats an’ say, ‘Ye must have sex with us an’ pay us an’ not give that money ter yer wives an’ kids who need it more!’ They come ter us, ye here? They decide ter pay us! Ye think they’re starvin’ their wives an’ children, ye talk ter them, not us!”
“I speak every Sunday from the pulpit –”
“Ye liar! Ye talk an’ talk an’ talk about us, an’ ye mention sympathy — sympathy! — fer our johns! Fer our johns! Ye want ter know who caused these problems? Those johns!”
“How did they have anything to with your descent into sin?” Brother Tuck scoffed.
“Because if they’d be willin’ ter hire girls like us, an’ give us honest work, instead o’ jest hirin’ men, we wouldn’t be in this position!” she replied.
“Ha! If you were actually willing to put in an honest day’s work –”
“Shut up! Ye think we don’t work? We have ter be pleasant, an’ we have ter be charmin’, an’ we have ter get ye all hot an’ bothered without ye knowin’ it! An’ then we have ter lie there an’ let ye do what ye like ter us! You think that ain’t work? It’s work!”
“It is not honest –”
“No, because men like ye say it ain’t!” the woman retorted. “Ye want ter know why there are women like me an’ me sisters? Because men like you want there to be!”
“I don’t lie! I tell the truth ye don’t want ter hear! Men like ye, ye need us! Ye need us ter keep yer womenfolk in line! ‘Oh, don’t ye give me any lip, or smile at too many men, or try ter think or do fer yerself, or else ye’ll end up like those women!’ An’ ye know what else? Ye need us ter make little children fer yer orphanages, so ye can indenture them ter the lord that bids highest an’ raise money fer yer Church!”
“That is not why –”
“Oh, really?” the woman hissed. “Then tell me — what’s gonna happen ter Miss Tara Abbot once –”
“THAT is why I called you here!” Brother Tuck interrupted. “How did you dare? How did you dare to cast aspersion on our good Father Hugh’s name –”
“On Father Hugh’s name?”
“– by claiming he was the father of your child?!”
“Er — whose child am I supposed to have fathered?”
Brother Tuck froze, and the woman across from him froze as well.
Brother Tuck was the first to turn to face the good Father, who was smiling at them a little sheepishly — as if he had done anything wrong! The woman, on the other hand, looked ready to bolt, but a quick hand on her arm kept her in place. And so what if he squeezed that arm. He was only giving her the penance she deserved, one way or another. If her heart did not give her pain, to see the man she had wronged, then her arm would give her pain.
“You haven’t fathered any children, that I know of, Father Hugh,” Brother Tuck replied. “However, this — this whore –”
“Brother Tuck! Bite your tongue! We do not insult good Wrightian women in that way!” Father Hugh gasped. He looked at the woman. “I apologize for this good Brother, madam. I had no idea –”
“Father Hugh, with all due respect, I am not — I do not give this woman that name in order to insult her. I merely state her — profession,” Brother Tuck spat.
“Even if that is the case, we do not insult good Wrightian women in that way,” Father Hugh replied. “May I ask your name, daughter? I thought I knew all of the members of this flock, but apparently I am mistaken.”
Was she blushing? No, it was impossible. And even if it wasn’t impossible, per se, it was impossible to tell on her complexion. “Me name is Tambu, sir.”
“Tambu? What a pretty name!” Father Hugh replied. Brother Tuck scowled. “Now, may I ask you something, Tambu?”
“What’s — what’s that, sir?”
“Let me rephrase that. Let me ask you two things. The first — please, do not call me ‘sir.’ Call me Father.” He smiled. “We are all children of Wright, after all. I would not wish to pretend I was any higher or lower in His — or anyone else’s — estimation, by taking any false honorifics.”
The woman wrinkled her forehead, as if she didn’t quite understand what was being said, but she replied, “I can do that, Father.”
“Thank you, daughter. Now, the second thing — how is it that Brother Tuck here has managed to get the impression that you are naming me as the father of a child of yours?”
She looked away. “Mistress Tambu?” Father Hugh asked.
“I bore a child, s–Father, about a year ago. She’s with the nuns now.”
“Well, I certainly didn’t father her!” Father Hugh chuckled.
“No, Father, ye — ye didn’t. But I gave her the last name o’ Abbot, jest the same.”
“You — what? Oh! Oh, I see.” Father Hugh stroked his chin. “I see. You were hoping that people would see the child’s surname and think I was the father?”
She swallowed and kept her gaze on the floor. “F-father, I didn’t care whether people thought ye, personally, were her father or no — what I wanted people ter, ter do was … think.”
“Think — think about the folks they’re listenin’ ter. Ter — ter remember that ye an’ Brother Tuck, an’ all the other Church folks, are Sims jest like the rest of us. That ye ain’t perfect. An’ that …”
“And that what?”
“Ye — ye won’t get me into no trouble fer sayin’ this?”
“I assure you, you are free to say what you please.”
“Father! You mustn’t –”
The woman, meanwhile, turned a grin full of unnecessarily sharp teeth to him. Then she looked again at Father Hugh. “I wanted ter show — ter show everyone, that they should think twice before listenin’ ter everythin’ ye an’ Brother Tuck — but mostly Brother Tuck — says at the pulpit, especially if those things will hurt some other Sim!”
Father Hugh blinked. “You — you think it likely that listening to Brother Tuck and me will result in some Sim being hurt?”
“Maybe not directly, Father, but — aye. Sinful as what me an’ me sisters do is, if we don’t do it, we don’t eat.”
“But surely you know that the doors of the Holy Mother Church are open to you? That you can come in at any time, ask for help, and we will give it to you?”
“Father, maybe me an’ me sisters might’ve thought o’ that three, four, five years ago — but since Brother Tuck started preachin’ his sermons, we’ve learned that we ain’t welcome in no church.”
Father Hugh’s jaw fell. Brother Tuck began to step forward. “Father, don’t listen to her — she speaks with the voice of temptation! She’s only saying that to –”
“No, Brother Tuck. She does not speak as a temptress. I think I know in whose name she speaks — and it is not the Grim Reaper, it is not the cow demons, it is not …” He sighed. “Daughter, I am sorry, but have you need of any further counsel today? I fear I must have a long — and earnest — talk with my fellow monk, and I belive that I need to have that talk soon.”
“No, Father. I wouldn’t have come here at, ‘cept Brother Tuck sent fer me.”
“Then go with the Lord Wright, daughter.” Father Hugh performed the sign of the plumbob over her. “And remember — the doors of the Holy Mother Church are always open to you. We will find a way to help you obtain honest work, if honest work is what you want.”
“Thank ye, Father.”
The woman walked out, and Father Hugh followed her — and Brother Tuck followed Father Hugh. The good Father sighed as she walked down the steps. “That woman was sent here, Brother. She was sent here as warning against temptation.”
“Temptation to what, Father?”
“Pride, my son,” Father Hugh answered. “And we have both been over-guilty of pride in these past years. Come, Tuck. We must speak. We must speak now, if we hope to root out the sin at all — before it is too late.”