“Well!” said Ailís as she seated herself. The tea things were soaking in the sink, and now that they were both well-lubricated, there was nothing to stop her and her mother from having a nice chat. “Ain’t this nice?”
“Aye, Lís, that it is.” Lilé’s smile was as warm and tender as ever, but her voice was slow, labored. Her breath, too, when she sighed was too raspy for Ailís’s comfort. “Time ter sit a while, slow down. Lord! Ye don’t know how long it’s been since I felt that I had time fer that.”
When was the last time her mother had slowed down? It had been rush, rush, rush since before Ailís was born; she was sure of it. And even once Grady had brought his bride home, Lilé had scarcely a moment to catch her breath. For it was then that Grady had gotten the idea to raise his station, so aside from the normal rush that came with a fertile daughter-in-law and a new baby every couple years, there was the shop and the saving and the everything else. No wonder Lilé was so exhausted all the time. Ailís would be, too, in her shoes.
“But now ye’ve got time, finally. With Katie bein’ old enough ter help out, an’ Berach finally bein’ married an’ havin’ help with Leah, now ye’ve got time fer a quiet chat with the girls.”
The mention of her son sent Ailís glancing over to the blanket laid out on the floor, but Jake was still lying quietly on it next to Baby Belle. Ailís had to smile to see it. They were an adorable pair. It was almost too bad that Baby Belle would be weaned soon and would go back home, but that was the way of things. Master Wesleyan spent more time with the girl on each and every visit. He’d be happy to have her back home, and Ailís would be happy to not be nursing again.
“Even if Josie’s nappin’,” Lilé chuckled, bringing Ailís’s mind back to the present. “Not that she’d add much ter the talkin’, mind.”
“Probably more than Nellie an’ Nora,” Ailís murmured, nodding to where the two little girls sat on the floor, playing some sort of clapping game. “It were nice o’ ye ter bring her over, though. Ye know how Nellie loves playin’ with her cousins.”
“An’ that’s how it should be. Ye shan’t … ye shan’t ever catch–” Lilé broke off as a cough rose up inside her and forced its way out. “Goodness!”
“Ye all right, Ma?”
” ‘Course I am, it’s jest a cough.”
“I’m fine, lass.”
“I’ll make ye some honey-an’-ginger tea,” Ailís answered, starting to rise.
“Ailís, don’t be silly! I’m fine. Besides, I already had two cups o’ it before I left the house. I ain’t daft, girl.”
Ailís slowly sat again. “Ye sure?”
“Positive. Now. When d’ye think that Joyce will start gettin’ a belly on her? Good Lord, she an’ Berach have been married fer months already!”
“Ma!” Ailís laughed. “Ye weren’t half this bad with Toinette!”
“That’s cause we lived in the same house, dear, an’ ter be anxious would jest be rude. An’ I ain’t never rude.”
“Not ter folks’ faces, ye’re not.”
“An’ I try not ter be rude behind their backs.”
“But don’t always succeed.”
“Well, I am only a Sim, dear.”
Ailís laughed and her worries about Lilé’s cough fled. She’d not seen her mother this cheerful in — in — well, ever, she supposed. But Lilé had been in a buoyant mood ever since Berach had gotten married. Apparently even her feckless younger brother was good for something.
She smiled and rubbed her mother’s shoulder. Lilé watched that hand with a bemused look. “What?” asked Ailís.
“Ye ain’t usually that affectionate.”
“Ye ain’t usually this peppy.”
“Are ye tryin’ ter tell me somethin’, lass?”
“Jest that it’s a good day. Fer both of us, apparently.”
“Aye,” Lilé sighed. “It is a good day. Toinette’s baby started off the day kickin’, ye know. An’ fer once Grandma got ter feel the belly. Guess the fun wore off fer the big sibs.”
“I’d think especially so fer Katie. She’s been feelin’ Toinette’s belly since Paddy was kickin’ around inside. She must be gettin’ right sick o’ it by now.”
“Nonsense. I’ve been feelin’ Toinette’s belly since Katie was kickin’ inside it, an’ I’ve been feelin’ yer belly since Nellie was kickin’ inside it, an’ I hope ter be feelin’ Joyce’s belly before long. That never gets old.”
“Bah, Ma, it’s different fer a grandmother. Fer a mother, even, feelin’ it from inside her –”
“Oh, there’s no feelin’ in the world like that,” sighed Lilé.
“I know,” agreed Ailís. And when Jake and Baby Belle were weaned, perhaps she too would be feeling that soon. She rubbed her own belly for luck before looking back at her mother. “But it’s not like that fer a big sib. Fer big sibs, every new baby is a new source o’ bother. It ain’t till they’re older that they start likin’ their sibs. At the beginnin’, it’s jest another reason fer their ma an’ da ter pay less attention ter them.”
Lilé blinked. “Was — was it like that fer ye? With Berach?”
“What? Ma! Berach an’ I are barely a year apart, not even! I don’t remember life before Berach.”
“Aye …” Lilé sighed. “Aye, ye wouldn’t.”
“What’s that sigh fer?”
“Oh … I don’t know. I jest, now that I’m older …” She glanced over her shoulder at the playing girls. “Katie got some time ter be the baby. Ter be her parents’ biggest concern fer a while. The one they worry the most about an’ cuddle an’ play with the most. Paddy, Nora, Sean — they did too. Lord knows Leah got her time as the baby. An’ yer own kids — Nellie an’ Josie an’ –”
“Not Jake!” Ailís pointed out, forcing herself to laugh and trying thereby to coax her mother into laughing too. “He was scarce a few weeks old before Baby Belle moved in on his territory!”
“That’s different, that’s … that’s like bein’ twins. Nobody can help when twins come around. It’s the Lord Wright’s will.”
Ailís raised one eyebrow. “An’ me an’ Berach bein’ so close together wasn’t?”
“Weren’t jest the Lord Wright’s will, anyway. It takin’ two ter tango an’ all that.”
“All right, first of all, no more talkin’ about tangoin’, at least as it’s about ye an’ Da!”
“Oh, Lís, ye’re a bright girl. Ye know we must’ve tangoed at least three times.” Lilé rolled her eyes. She looked over her shoulder again at the giggling girls. “It’s jest … Lís, I hope when ye get ter the end o’ yer life, ye don’t have no … regrets like I have.”
Ailís slowed down. Took a deep breath. Blinked a few times. Several responses came to mind. She weighed them individually, rejecting this one for being too blunt, that too subtle, the next too joking, the last too serious. She finally found one adequate. “Ma … what d’ye mean, the end o’ yer life?”
Lilé only smiled and patted Ailís’s hand.
“Sweetheart, what d’ye want me ter say? That I’m going ter live ferever? When ye get ter my time o’ life, ye’ll understand. Ye’ll realize … well … that a woman with as many white hairs in her head as I have has more of her sands at the bottom of the hourglass than at the top.”
“Ye’ve still got a good few years left ter run.”
“Perhaps. It’s in the Lord Wright’s hands.” But even though her voice was light and easy, Lilé’s face was so drawn, so tired …
There were many things she could have said right then. Later, Ailís would wonder what might have happened if she had said them. But no matter what she wondered, at the end she forced herself to conclude that she had said the best possible thing. It was something designed to make her mother feel better deep down in her soul. Anything meant to comfort another Sim like that had to be the right thing to say.
“Well!” Ailís laughed. “If me an’ Berach bein’ so close tergether is the worst o’ yer regrets, I’d say ye won’t have much ter regret!”
Even if the remark failed abysmally in its stated purpose, it had to be right to make the attempt.
Lilé’s face slowly fell. “Oh, Ailís … ye think that’s the worst of it?”
“Ma, ye’ve been a good, kind, Wright-fearin’ woman fer as long as I’ve known ye. An’, if ye don’t mind me sayin’, I’ve known ye fer a good long time.”
“Not as long as ye think ye have. When I was young … yer father, yer brother …”
“Oh, fer the good Lord’s sake, Ma! Who cares after all these years if Grady were made on the wrong side o’ the blanket?”
“That don’t make it less of a sin.”
Ailís took a deep breath. A thousand words crowded into her mouth. She wanted — so badly! — to point out that if all sins had such good consequences as Lilé’s, the monks and nuns would be preaching in its favor and not against it. Where would Ailís and Berach and Grady himself be without that sin? Without that sin, there’d be no Katie, no Paddy, no Nora, no Sean, no Leah — and what was worst of all, no Nellie, no Josie, no Jake!
But Lilé was smart enough to work that all out herself. No. “Well, so ye did sin. We all do. An’ ye did the right thing after, didn’t ye? Ye did yer penance, ye married Pa, ye didn’t sin in that way again. Ye made a family an’ a home fer Grady an’ fer me an’ Berach. Ye took care o’ Pa the way a good wife should. An’, Ma …” Ailís rubbed the back of her mother’s bony, slack hand. “If it bothers ye so much, why don’t ye talk ter Brother Tuck about it? Or Mother Julian. I wager they’d say the same thing I jest said.”
Lilé closed her eyes. Her hands slipped from Ailís’s weak grasp to run through her grayed and tired hair. “Lís … yer pa’s a drunk.”
“I’ve noticed,” was all Ailís could reply.
“I didn’t help him.”
“Nonsense. If it weren’t fer ye, he’d be a drunk in an alley somewhere, sleepin’ in his own piss an’ spending every last farthin’ he could beg on whatever ale-flavored water he could find. If he weren’t dead yet. Ye were the savin’ o’ him, Ma.”
“If he’d been in that alley,” Lilé shrugged, “we woulda been there with ‘im. I couldn’t let that happen ter ye kids.”
“So? Ye still saved ‘im. What, ye think there’s a saint on the calendar who didn’t have two reasons fer doin’ his miracles? Even St. Robert himself cured some o’ his best friends ’cause he didn’t want them dead yet!”
“It’s not the same … listen, honey. He weren’t like that when we first knew each other, ye see? Oh, sure he loved the bottle as much as anyone, an’ maybe more than he should’ve, but … he weren’t a drunk. It weren’t … it weren’t until he came back from the war that he got so bad.”
“Ma, that war broke a lot of men, from what ye say. Ye ain’t ter blame fer that.”
“It weren’t jest that … it were … he was slippin’, ye see? I could see he was slippin’. An’ at first … when it would have done some good … I didn’t do a thing ter help him. There …” She glanced over her shoulder, but the girls were still laughing and giggling and seeming to not pay a bit of mind to what they were saying. “I never told nobody about this, ye hear? Nobody except Brother Tybalt, our monk. When … when yer pa was gone fer so long, we all thought he was dead. An’ there was another man in our village … a butcher. Oh, he was indentured like the rest o’ us, but he had a good shop an’ made a good livin’. He didn’t go ter the wars because he broke his leg once an’ it never healed right. An’ he … after it had been years with no word from the men, he started payin’ attention ter me. Me! It weren’t proper courtin’, not yet, but … but we was talkin’, an’ thinkin’, an’ he would have apprenticed Grady an’ left the shop ter him if we’d had no sons! He’d apprentice him either way an’ give him a good trade! Oh, it was gonna be so grand! An’ then …”
“An’ then?” she asked, even though she knew what the answer would be.
“Yer Pa came home.”
“An’ nothin’ happened between ye an’ the butcher?”
“Aye, but –“
“But nothin’!” Ailís tried to smile. “Ye thought ye were a widow-woman. Ye were left alone fer years. Ye saw a good chance comin’ up, an’ ye took it — but ye moved right slow, an’ ye were stopped before ye could sin. There ain’t no harm in that!”
“Oh, Lís, ye think I’d be tearin’ myself up over that? No, no! It were … it were …”
She looked over her shoulder again, satisfied herself that the girls were playing and … if someone could collapse while still sitting upright, Lilé would have done that. Her shoulders sagged and she cradled her head in her hands. “I hated him when he came back! I hated him fer ruinin’ everythin’! Again! An’ when he was drinkin’, I didn’t stop him, because — because I thought if he drank himself inter an early grave, it’d serve him right!”
Ailís could only blink. Even gasping was beyond her.
“An’ then … an’ then …” Lilé shook. “An’ then ye were on the way. An’ it weren’t jest me an’ Grady no more. There were ye, too. So — so I had ter try to drag him out o’ the grave he was diggin’ fer himself. Except, ye see, I’d left it too long, an’ there was no gettin’ him out unless he wanted out.”
“But he didn’t.” It was not a question.
“No,” Lilé agreed. “So I got ye an’ Grady an’ later Berach well out o’ range o’ any flyin’ dirt, an’ I let yer father keep on diggin’.” Lilé ruffled her hair. “It’s awful ter say all that, ain’t it? But it’s true. An’ … well, somebody ought ter know the truth. The good an’ the bad o’ it. Horrible as it is.”
Ailís swallowed. “I understand.”
“The truth has ter be worth somethin’,” Lilé murmured to the tabletop. “If it ain’t … then what is?”
“Love?” Ailís croaked.
“Perhaps. Perhaps. But … there’s so many false loves pretendin’ ter be true, it ain’t worth it ter go ter the market with that coin. Ye’re better off bringin’ somethin’ else ter barter with.”
“Didn’t ye love us, Ma?”
Lilé looked up and smiled. It was the same tired smile Ailís remembered from her earliest childhood — no, from her cradle. “Sweetheart, if there weren’t no true love, what would all the false ones be pretendin’ ter be?”
Lilé’s eyes narrowed. “Are ye all right, Ailís?”
“O’course, Ma,” she replied. And gulped.
“It’s gettin’ late,” Ailís interrupted, and stood. “Ye an’ Nora have a long walk ahead o’ ye.”
Lilé watched her face, but after a moment that seemed like an eternity, she nodded and stood up. “Nora! Say goodbye ter Nellie. We’ve got ter get home.” She looked again at Ailís with a trembling smile. “Now, where’s that baby?”
So while the two girls squeezed the life out each other, Lilé waved and cooed and otherwise made a fool of herself with Jake. Every now and then her eyes would flicker up to Ailís face, and just as regularly they would fall again. When Lilé finally straightened her back with many slow cracks, her eyes were beseeching. “Ailís?”
“I’m fine, Ma.” Or I will be. Sooner or later.
“Auntie! I wanna say goodbye ter baby Jake, too!”
Ailís turned Jake to his big cousin with a smile. “O’ course ye can, Nora! Gettin’ used ter babies again before yer ma’s new one comes?”
“I guess,” Nora replied. “But I don’t remember when Sean was a little-little baby.”
“It’ll come back ter ye,” Ailís murmured. However, it was her mother she watched.
She hugged Nellie with a fierceness that had to be just shy of painful. How Ailís knew this … it was a memory too vague, too shadowy to really be that. Maybe it was only a dream. It certainly had been a dream at many points in her life. A dream of being small and hot and miserable, her very insides burning her up, and her mother holding her and rocking her and crying into her hair.
She’d been sickly as a little girl; Grady had told her that. She didn’t remember it; she’d gotten mostly well once the family moved to Albion and she had regular access to enough good food to fill her belly, fresh air to fill her lungs, and clean lodgings to ensure that a stray cold didn’t ruin the effects of the other two. But she knew there had been times when Brother Tybalt and Lilé had despaired of her life. She thought, perhaps, that that memory came from one of those times.
But Nellie had never been sickly; she had her father’s oxlike constitution. And so she had never been so hugged. She staggered away from her grandmother a little dazed once it was done.
Lilé shot Ailís a smile, then put her hand on Nora’s shoulder and walked her out the door.
Ailís scarcely had a chance to close the door behind their passing and put Jake back on his blanket before Nellie quavered, “Mama?”
“Aye, baby?” Never, Ailís thought, no matter how old I get, no matter how tired I feel — she will never know any times when I didn’t love Neil the way I ought ter have. He’s her father! She don’t need ter know about the troubles we’ve had an’ will have!
“Nora says Grandma’s sick.”
Ailís spun and stood in the same fluid motion. “Eh?”
“She says she’s coughin’ a lot. An’ she has ter stay in bed long times. Except when she has ter work. Nora says that she hears her ma an’ pa talkin’ at night, that they’re worried. Mama …” Nellie bit her lip the way Neil did when he was scared or nervous. “Mama, is Grandma gonna die?”
“I …” Ailís crouched down and smoothed her daughter’s fine hair back from her forehead. Her face was all Neil’s, and more beautiful than she had ever thought Neil’s face could be on a woman.
And she realized something. Lilé may have once sworn that her children would never know her hardships, too. But after so many years of being battered by the storm, she had to release a little of the pressure or crash on the rocks. At least Ailís had been strong enough and close enough to take some of that pressure.
And perhaps Lilé’s legacy could be that she had produced a daughter strong enough to keep that promise.
But that daughter loved the truth as Lilé loved it. So Ailís replied only, “I don’t know, baby. But tonight we’ll pray that the Lord Wright keeps Grandma with us fer a good long time. An’ if he don’t need any more angels at the moment, Grandma will be right fine.”