Before he could step into the monks’ library, Father Hugh had to grab the doorpost for support.
He closed his eyes to center himself, and more importantly, to send up a prayer. He prayed that the proper words of understanding and comfort would come to him, that he would be able to lead this family through the first tottering steps of grief and set them on the road to proper faith. He prayed for patience and wisdom for himself. But mostly, he prayed that he would not fail this widower as he had the last widower to come under his care.
Perhaps to claim failure was a form of vanity on his part — after all, Father Hugh had barely even tried to counsel Accolon Pelles, as he was known then. Old Father Gregory had still been abbot in those days, and he certainly had not troubled himself overmuch when it came to Accolon’s grief. He had said the blessing over poor Esmé’s body, spoken the funeral service, and told young Accolon that he was available if young Accolon wished to talk. Then he had washed his hands of the matter. Father Hugh had barely done any better — he had sat the young man down, and spoken many pretty words on the subject of the Will of Wright, and the natural responses to grief, and the proper regulation of those responses. And then he had walked away, leaving young Accolon alone.
After the young man had gotten into so much trouble — fornication and impregnation of the King’s sister, a so-called “accidental” death, zombification and memory loss — Father Hugh would wonder if perhaps he should have said more, done more. Perhaps, if Accolon had not felt so bereft of hope and the love of the Holy Mother Church, he would not have embarked on that suicidal and, worse, possibly damning course.
Father Hugh had not given up hope on Accolon yet; the Pascalians did not hold, as some other orders did, that those who did not preserve their perfect state of Simity were automatically damned. The fact that Accolon had not sought his form, as witches and wizards or vampires often did, was another point in his favor. But being immune to “death by natural causes” did tend to complicate the journey to Heaven. The fact that Accolon seemed to feel no real penitence for his sins of those days, and the trouble he had caused, was only slightly less worrisome.
Still, it was not Accolon le Fay, née Pelles, that he had come to save today. Father Hugh stepped to the head of the table. “Greetings, brothers and sisters.”
The Wesleyan family broke off their whispered conversions and looked at him. “Greetings, Father,” answered Mark first. The rest of the family murmured their greetings as well.
Or, most of the rest of the family did. Joshua stared at the table. And little Darius buried his face in his grandmother’s bosom, only looking up to smile when his uncle tousled his hair.
“You — you preached a good sermon for Isabel, this morning,” Mark finally spoke. “And the words by the … by the grave …” He swallowed. “Thank you, Father.”
“I did only my duty. It was Joshua, I believe, who was most inspiring this morning.” Father Hugh laid a hand on Joshua’s shoulder, in comfort, in solidarity — only to find it shrugged off as a man would shove away the hand of a drunk.
“Joshua,” Helena reproved — or began to, until Father Hugh shook his head.
“Joshua,” Father Hugh said instead, “is there anything else you might like to say? A memory, a thought about Isabel?”
He shook his head.
“Nothing? You spoke so well this morning –”
“And that was hard enough for him!” broke in Babette. “He wasn’t sure he’d be able to do it this morning! Rob had to — ow! Rob!”
Babette rubbed her shin, glaring daggers at her brother — he glared them right back. “Children,” Helena scolded, and rolled her eyes.
“Don’t ‘children’ me, Mum! Joshua doesn’t want to talk, and I don’t see any reason why Father Hugh should make him.” Babette leaned back with her arms crossed before her chest and dared anyone to contradict her.
Father Hugh took her up on that. “I assure you, Babette, I have no way of ‘making’ your brother talk. I only know, through bitter experience, that it is better to deal with this kind of grief through the sharing of treasured memories, and contemplating the happy times. And certainly, Isabel herself would not want to watch her beloved husband turn into a shell of his former self.”
Helena nodded, Mark watched Joshua, Rob bit his lip, Darius looked around, Babette rolled her eyes and Heloise snorted. The only one who did not react in any way was Joshua.
No — that was not true. He closed his eyes. He sighed.
And that was it.
“Mark,” Helena broke in, “why don’t you tell the story of when …” She rubbed her grandson’s head, suddenly stopped, looked at the boy and then at his father, and breathed in sharply. “No — no, not that story. Heloise — Heloise, why don’t you talk about what you were bringing up the other day, you know, when Isabel swore that boy was flirting with you and –”
“Ladies, please –” Father Hugh began.
He got no farther, for he learned in that moment just why it was that Rob, as a rule, said so very little — it was so the words he did say would have the greatest effect. “Father, I’ll tell the story of when we all first met Isabel.” He glanced at Helena with a raised eyebrow. “Does that meet with your approval, Mother?”
“It’s fine, dear.”
And so Rob told that story, and Father Hugh watched faces. Mostly, though, he watched Darius. The little boy seemed to be keeping himself amused very well. He’d been good as gold through the funeral, and now seemed content to hum in tune to some scrap of melody only he could hear.
His mother would have been proud.
“I still, to this day, don’t understand how Isabel was able to get through that dinner with a smile on her face. Or without stabbing Josh with a fork. I don’t care what Josh said to her — there’s no way he gave her enough warning.” Rob tried to follow that up with a chuckle.
The family was silent — silent, and, Father Hugh realized, waiting. Every now and again, an eye darted in his direction.
No, not his — Joshua’s. And Father Hugh understood. They were waiting for funny Joshua, happy-go-lucky Joshua, always-joking Joshua, to defend his honor in a presumably humorous fashion.
Joshua said nothing.
Rob gulped. “But — but I guess, she was used to Josh by that point, and figured that it would take a very specific kind of family to produce a clown like him.”
“Pay-a-so,” little Darius sang. “Papa’s a pay-a-so.”
That made Joshua look up. He almost smiled. His hand came up in a fond father’s rumple — but it dropped before it made it halfway to the conclusion of its journey.
“A — pay-a –” Father Hugh stage-whispered to Mark.
“Clown,” Mark stage-whispered back. “In Simspanish. I think. It’s what Isabel …”
“It’s what Isabel would call Josh whenever Josh would drive her crazy,” Babette answered. “And she taught Darius to say that.”
“It’s called revenge, Father,” Rob added in what Father Hugh guessed was an attempt to be helpful.
“I … see.”
“They both did it, didn’t they?” Mark asked his family around the crack in his voice. “Josh and … Isabel. Every time we came home for work, Isabel would have Darius parrot back some — some mildly insulting phrase — and when Isabel went to the market, or tea with a friend, Josh would do his best to give tit for tat.” He gulped. “Wouldn’t — wouldn’t he?”
“Oh, yes!” Helena chimed in. “Absolutely! It was so funny, to watch the two of them wage war through this little one’s attempts to speak! Poor baby, he didn’t learn how to say, ‘I love you,’ until Joshua …”
Helena stopped. She swallowed and hugged Darius closer.
“Until Joshua …?” Father Hugh prompted.
“Until she and Josh got into a big fight, and they were barely speaking for days, and Josh taught Darius to say that as a way of apologizing without actually having to apologize,” Babette snapped. “And perhaps, since Isabel’s just — just — passed away, maybe Josh doesn’t want to remember all the times he upset her when he didn’t have to, hmm? Right, Heloise?”
Father Hugh tilted his head to one side and waited for Heloise.
Heloise only straightened her skirt. Babette nudged her. “Heloise!”
“Fine, fine! Right.”
“Daughters,” Father Hugh tried to smile, “I do understand that. It can seem cruel, in the early days of grief, to bring up times when … when we did not always behave toward the deceased with the firmest Wrightian patience and charity.”
“She has a name, you know!” Babette snarled. “And it’s not ‘the deceased’!”
“Babette,” Mark warned.
“Well, she –”
“Babette, you are quite right again. However, I was speaking in a more general sense. Sometimes, it helps the bereaved to talk about these things more generally at first, and apply them to their own specific case only later.”
“And of course, that is perfectly understandable,” Father Hugh continued. “We mere Sims must do what we can, to make our griefs small enough for us to bear. But in this, we must always remember we are not alone. We have a holy Father, a Lord who helps us bear even our smallest troubles — and if we come to Him humbly, with our hearts full and open, do not doubt that our Lord Wright will take up his share of the burden, and help us along.”
“But, Father …”
It was Joshua.
He looked up at Father Hugh. “How — how can it be, that the same Lord who is so willing to — to help us in everything — is the one who gives a family a new baby, but takes the baby’s mother as the price?”
Father Hugh gasped. Accolon had asked no such difficult questions as this. He had barely said anything. He had not even asked why.
Perhaps this was a good sign — a sign that Joshua was still awake and engaging, questioning, thinking. He was still holding on to life, he would not embark upon such a foolish mission as Accolon had done —
Father Hugh had not much time to contemplate this sign, though, for a little voice interrupted his thoughts.
Now all heads swiveled to Darius.
Several things happened at once. There were more gasps — his own included — than Father Hugh could count. Helena grabbed the little boy’s shoulders. Mark began to whisper, “Oh Wright, oh Wright, oh Wright –”
A low moan — the death cry of a hunted animal — came from Joshua, and his body began to slump forward.
And the screech of wood on wood reverberated through the room as Heloise thrust her chair back. “I’ll take him out!” And so she plucked Darius from her mother’s lap and was halfway out the door before Father Hugh could do more than blink.
“I’ll go after her,” Babette announced — and all he saw of her was her retreating back.
Babette ran after her sister, her soft shoes echoing through the close stone corridor. “Heloise!”
She ran through the door to find Heloise already sitting on the path, playing a rhyming game with Darius. “Hey!”
The walls echoed her question in chorus.
“Heloise!” Babette called as she stomped down the shallow step. “Hey! I’m talking to you!”
“Shut up, Babette,” Heloise muttered out the side of her mouth, “you’ll scare the poor kid more than he’s already scared.” And Darius was looking up at her with those big brown eyes, so close to tears, as he had been, from time to time, ever since Isabel had gone into labor.
“He shouldn’t even be here. We should have left him with the Ferreiras,” Babette murmured.
“You won’t get any argument from me on that.”
“Aye, you’ve been doing that a lot this morning,” Babette snapped.
Heloise looked, one eyebrow migrating upward. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You! Sitting in there like — like — like a lump on a log!”
“How creative of you.”
“Shut up, Heloise! You know this whole meeting is bullshit! How come I was the only one saying so?”
Slowly, Heloise untangled herself from her skirts and stood up. “Did it never occur to you that perhaps it’s a bit impolite to tell a monk that his attempts to help Josh are bullshit?”
“Like you give a damn about being polite!”
“I do when I’m sitting in somebody else’s library!”
“Oh, is that what this is about? You didn’t want to say anything, because if you did, you might not get let back into the library? You’re so selfish, Heloise!”
“I’m selfish! You want to — to get out of here so you can go roll in the hay with your boyfriend, and I’m selfish?”
“I don’t want to get out of here for me! I want to get out of here for Josh!” Babette stamped her foot. “He didn’t want to do this and you know it!”
“Oh, Wright, Babette –”
“He didn’t want to! You heard him tell Mother the same I did! He just wanted to come home and be with us and Darius! But no, Mum thought we should do what Father Hugh said, and so –”
“Babette! She’s only trying to help! And so is Father H–”
The echo of Babette’s heel hitting the paving stone echoed through the silent abbey. “You argued with Mum the same way I did! And now we’re here, and you just throw Josh to the wolves!”
“I didn’t throw Josh anywhere!”
“You didn’t defend him, either!”
“Defend him? Was that what your childish protests were meant to be? A defense? I thought Rob did a much better job defending him than you did!”
“Rob? How? He barely said more than you did!”
“He took the heat off Josh, you idiot! He talked and said things so Josh didn’t have to! Wright! Are you really that stupid?”
“I might be stupid, but at least I was trying for Josh! Even if nobody would listen! That’s more than you were doing! You just sat there, and then took the first chance you had to escape! Leaving Josh in there!”
“Well, I don’t see you in there fighting off monks!”
“That’s because I had to come out here and talk sense into you! I thought we were on the same side for once! But no, you have to be a — be a — a bad sister!”
Heloise swallowed. And was her upper lip — quivering?
“Heloise?” Babette whispered.
“I said shut up! Look, I would have helped Josh if I could have, all right?” Heloise’s shoulders, her arms, her hands — all shook as she took that deep breath. “I just — I couldn’t say anything! I couldn’t! If I had tried I would have started –”
Babette spun, and so did Heloise, to see Darius sitting at the trunk of one of the trees, wailing.
“Oh, Darius!” Babette ran to him. “Darius, what happened? Did you get a boo-boo?”
“Mama — Mama can’t come right now …”
“Shush, Darius, shush …” Babette swooped in and held him to her breast, like she had watched Isabel do a hundred times. “It’s all right …”
“Mama went away, Darius,” Heloise whispered. “Mama can’t come. But — but don’t you worry, because …”
“Because Auntie Heloise and Auntie Babette are going to take good care of you,” Babette replied. “And someday — when we all see Mama again — you’ll tell her what good care we took of you.”