A mound of earth. Three clay pots of flowers picked by the granddaughters. A simple carved stone.
It was hard to believe that to the eyes, that was all that was left of Lilé Brogan.
They’d never see her smile again. Never feel her embrace after a hard day’s work or a tough time or even a bit of happy news. Never get to hear her sensible and sage advice. All was that was left was her voice in all of their minds, slow and measured, trying to guide them on the right path. All that was left was a hole in their hearts that only her embrace could heal. All that was left was a memory that smiles had been.
And how many of them would have those memories? Grady and Ailís and Berach would never forget her. Katie and Paddy had good memories of her, too. But Nora and Nellie and Leah? Now they cried and clung to their mothers and papas, but in too few years Lilé would only be a faded and muzzy sense of love that had been. Sean, Josie, Jake … they’d been held and changed and rocked to sleep by Lilé, but all that they would have of her would be the stories their parents and older siblings shared.
And Joyce’s own baby …
But now wasn’t the time to be thinking about her baby. There were too many Sims who were born and here and hurting.
At least the kids were all right. They’d all cried and bawled at the church service, but kids were kids. Get them all together and they wouldn’t be crying for very long, at least not until they started making each other cry. They were still subdued for now, perhaps feeling Lilé’s ghost giving them all the stink eye, but as soon as the parents were sufficiently distracted or they started to walk back home, mayhem would surely break loose.
The grown-ups weren’t doing so well.
Ailís was taking it hard. She’d soldiered through the deathbed vigils and the laying-out, the wake and the funeral, only to fall to pieces now. Neil hadn’t taken his arm off her since they saw the little mound of earth. At least Katie was being good and keeping Nellie distracted; the poor little mite didn’t need to have her exclusive focus on her mother’s incoherent blubbering. Even Joyce couldn’t make head nor tail of what Ailís was saying. Something about drains?
Grady was holding together all right, but Joyce had a sneaking suspicion that it was only his essential manliness that was keeping him from being as much of a sobbing mess as Ailís. He held Toinette as if he were comforting her, but any fool could see that it was him being comforted. Joyce knew that slow, rhythmic rocking. It wasn’t the rocking of lovers. It was the way a mother rocked her troubled baby. Toinette had to be the one doing the rocking.
And as for Finley … well, he was upright. He wasn’t cursing or staggering about or making inappropriate passes now that he was officially “free.” He was even putting up with Brother Tuck’s ministrations, which was saying something, since Finley usually had less patience for the Church and churchmen than he did for, say, sobriety. He must have found just the right amount of drink to put him into a walking stupor, for there was no way he was doing this sober. Joyce almost felt sorry for Brother Tuck, downwind of the barrels of alcohol Finley had to have on his breath.
Perhaps it could be worse. Brother Tuck certainly seemed to be taking his job of comforting the bereaved widower seriously. It wasn’t as good as having Father Hugh here — she’d heard from Lukas just how good he had been to the Thatchers after old Jeremiah Thatcher passed on — but it was a good second. Every now and then Brother Tuck would even stop talking and appear to listen, which from Brother Tuck was getting a lot. The man seemed inordinately fond of the sound of his own voice, even for a preaching monk.
Still, though, of all of them … it wasn’t Finely Joyce was worrying about. Or Grady. Or even Ailís.
It was Berach.
He’d withdrawn to a little bench all by himself, near the statue of St. Vivian and the flowers somebody had planted at her feet. Statues of St. Vivian were common in cemeteries, or at least that was what Betsy had told Joyce. She was the patron saint of mourners. Twice a widow, she’d managed to raise her daughter from her first marriage, her second husband’s daughter, and the child she’d been carrying when her second husband died before going on to found a nunnery for widows. It was her strength, some said, that made her a saint.
Well, Joyce wished St. Vivian would send some of that strength her way — being dead and all, St. Vivian certainly couldn’t have any need of it. This was the first real storm she and Berach would face together, and Joyce hadn’t a clue what to do next. The first time Berach had sailed into choppy waters, she’d jumped ship. Then when the winds had started to howl around her and the waves threaten to crash over her head, Berach had jumped in after her and pulled her to safety. Now … well … now, she had to do something.
Taking a seat on the bench next to him would probably be good for a start.
Berach heard the creek of the wood, looked up and flashed her — her — a wan smile. It made her want to cry like nothing else today had. His mother had just been buried and Berach was trying to make her smile. She didn’t deserve him.
Well, like she’d once heard Kata Thatcher say to her ma, the best way to get even with a man for being better than you deserved was to be better than he deserved. Joyce put her hand out and started to rub Berach’s back.
Berach looked back at his lap, but Joyce could see the smile lingering at the corners of his lips. It didn’t look quite so wan anymore. That was a start.
Then he sighed. “How’s Leah?”
A year ago, she might have wondered at the kind of love that would make a man whose mother had just died worry more about his daughter’s grief than his own. Not anymore. Joyce looked over her shoulder. “She’s sittin’ with Nora.”
Berach chuckled. “So all’s right in the world, then.” No sooner did the words escape than he winced. With the wince he sat up straight again. Joyce’s hand fluttered to her lap.
She couldn’t say anything. Couldn’t even look at him. Lord, why was she the one who had to utter the words of comfort when there were no words?
Joyce looked up at the gray sky, wondering if even the angels were as sad as they all were today, so sad they blocked the sun with their wings. Or maybe they were spreading their wings in an embrace for Lilé.
“‘Twere a nice service,” Berach croaked.
“If ye can’t think of nothin’ … real ter say, then ye don’t have ter say nothin’. Not on my account.”
“It were a nice service,” Berach shrugged.
Joyce had to wonder what would count as a not-nice service. She could remember — just barely — the funeral for her Aunt Esmé. Or at least, she could remember Roma and Lukas both pitching fits throughout the service, Ella just wailing, her Uncle Accolon sitting like a shocked statue, and she herself pulling on Meg’s braids in boredom. She wasn’t sure how that could have gone worse, short of someone else dropping dead in the aisle. Yet no sooner had they all gone home than her own grandma had sat down, given Lukas a toy, and sighed, “Well, at least it were a nice service.”
“Somethin’ wrong, Joyce?”
Joyce turned. “Eh?”
“Ye looked … I dunno. A bit lost there, fer a minute or so.” Berach sighed and looked away.
“Oh … I was jest thinkin’ o’ me Aunt Esme’s funeral.”
“Me Uncle Accolon’s first wife. Before … ye know.”
“Oh. Oh, I remember … now,” Berach murmured. “What happened at her funeral?”
At worst Berach wouldn’t react at all. At best, he might even laugh. So Joyce told him.
When she finished, Berach snorted and stared straight ahead. “At least nobody thought ter bring the little ones ter this one.”
“It’s not the place fer them anyway,” Joyce shrugged. “Bein’ too little ter understand an’ …”
They both fell silent, looking up at the statue of St. Vivian.
“She wouldn’t want ye ter be this sad, ye know,” Joyce finally got up the courage to say.
“What, she’d rather have us laughin’ an’ talkin’ an’ pretendin’ nothin’ was wrong?”
“Well … laughin’ an’ talkin’ about her, maybe.”
Berach looked up at St. Vivian. “We love her. We’re gonna miss her. Simple as that.”
They both sighed and stared up at the statue, at least until Berach tried to look over his shoulder again. “Can ye see Leah?”
Joyce looked. “Aye. She’s still with Nora.”
Joyce put a hand on Berach’s shoulder and rubbed it gently. Berach sighed.
I wish I could tell ye that it’ll get better, she thought. I wish I could tell ye that it’ll be all right. I wish I could tell ye that yer ma is lookin’ down on ye now, an’ prayin’ fer ye, an’ doin’ all she can ter make ye feel better.
But all the comfort she could think to offer was as cold as the unseasonable wind that ripped through their clothes.
“Ye know what?” Joyce asked, her voice as bright as a counterfeit coin. “Yer ma used ter scare me, she did!”
Berach blinked. “My ma?”
“Aye! D’ye remember the first time ye brought me home fer dinner?”
Berach snorted. “I remember the first time ye brought me home fer dinner …”
“None o’ that. I warned ye beforehand about the cudgel.”
“Ye didn’t warn me that yer da would be swingin’ it! Testin’ the balance, he said — testin’ the balance, my ar–behind!”
“Well, how was I ter know he’d do that? He’d never done that ter Pierre!” Pierre might have taken a lesson from it, Joyce mused. But if Berach had taken a lesson from that, well, there’d be no Leah. Leah was more than worth her bent heart and bruised pride.
“Ye know yer da. I think ye wanted ter watch me squirm.”
“I didn’t want ter watch ye squirm — well, not then anyway. Later, maybe …” Joyce mused. “Maybe. But yer ma! Oh, she made me squirm!”
“Now, how did me sainted mother make ye squirm? She always liked ye!”
“Pfft, ye say that now. Don’t ye remember how she axed me ter help her with choppin’ the vegetables?”
Berach looked at her … and shrugged.
“Oh, ye’re jest a man, ye probably …” But no, Joyce couldn’t say that Berach probably thought food magically moved from the storeroom to the table. Berach was a man, but he was better in the kitchen than some women. Most women. It made Joyce blush to think of it, but those nights when she’d invited him to dinner, thinking to give the poor single man a good meal, she’d probably forced him to suffer through tripe compared to what he could make for himself. And Lord only knew how she was going to get him to part with his recipes!
“Well, ye were probably with yer pa or yer brother an’ not payin’ attention, but oh! The way she watched me chop them vegetables! I thought she was gonna start makin’ comments about my technique. I near chopped me finger off, me hands were shakin’ so!”
“Ye did not!”
“I did so! It’s the Lord’s own truth!” Joyce smirked.
“Well, at least there were no cause ter have the knife near yer foot. If ye lost a finger it would be no real lose. If somethin’ happened ter yer foot an’ ye couldn’t dance …”
“Not so!” Joyce waggled her right index finger. “For it were this finger, it were!”
Berach went cross-eyed trying to see the finger at the end of his nose. “Eh?”
“It’s the most important finger a woman’s got! When she starts waving it around, then her man an’ her kids know she means business! My ma told … oh.”
“Never mind,” Joyce muttered to her skirt.
“Joyce, don’t — fer the love of the good Lord, don’t do that.”
She looked up. “Don’t do what?”
“Pretend …” Berach sighed. “Pretend that jest because I don’t … have a ma anymore, that I can’t bear ter hear about them.”
“I don’t want ter make ye sadder than ye are already …” Joyce reached for his hand, took it and squeezed.
Berach smiled down at it and squeezed back. “It’d make me sadder ter pretend there weren’t no such thing anymore. Trust me.”
“If ye say so.”
“Besides …” Berach smiled and slung an arm around her shoulder, holding her tight against him, “if there weren’t no more mas, that’d mean there was no more ye, wouldn’t it?”
Joyce gasped. He’d guessed!
She’d tried so hard to hide it, because as luck would have it she’d missed her course just as Lilé had gotten sick, and as the weeks went on and Lilé only got worse, she hadn’t wanted to add to Berach’s worries. Lord knew he had enough on his mind. When Lilé got better — one way or the other — then there would be plenty of time for telling. Her ma, who she had told rather than burst with the pressure of holding the secret, had even said that Joyce didn’t have to tell Berach until she felt the baby move. It was usually best to tell a man before that — especially if a woman was experiencing other signs, and wasn’t the sort of girl who never knew if she was coming or going with her courses — but in light of everything that was going on …
Berach lifted Joyce to his lap, and for a moment Joyce forgot she was in a churchyard, forgot she was at a funeral, Berach’s own mother’s funeral, and just beamed at him. Berach beamed back. “After all, ye’re the only ma Leah’s ever known, and Wright willin’ the only ma she ever will know.”
… He hadn’t guessed. Joyce tried to keep smiling, but someone seemed to have tied a pair of lead weights to the corners of her lips for all that they wanted to stay up now.
“Joyce? Somethin’ wrong?”
“Ye shouldn’t be axin’ after me,” Joyce sputtered. “Ye should — ye ought ter — Lord, Berach, ye’ve got enough on yer plate –”
“Maybe worryin’ about ye instead o’ worryin’ about me makes the load lighter,” Berach shrugged.
Oh, damn, he had to go and say that, didn’t he? She grasped and found herself a straw. “Well, what about her … her real ma?”
“Ye’re her real ma.”
“No. No, listen. Ye’re her real ma. Ye’ve been the one who’s been there, who’s held her an’ comforted her an’ cared fer her, ain’t ye? So what if ye didn’t carry her an’ all that — it’s jest details, it is. It don’t matter. The love ye give her, an’ she gives ye, that’s what matters.”
Oh, that was easy for a man to say. A man who’d never know the feeling of new life growing inside him. For a man, it was the love that mattered. But to a woman, a woman who still wondered every day at the little baby that had somehow taken root …
She couldn’t continue to sit on his lap and smile like a brittle shell. She untangled herself and stood up. But before Berach could look hurt or surprised, she pulled him up and ran a hand over his cheek.
“Ye … ye’re a good man, Berach Brogan. With … with yer ma’s own wisdom.” Maybe she didn’t feel that, right now, but he needed to hear it. And it was true. Most of the time.
“Ye’re cryin’,” Berach whispered. He trailed a finger on her cheek and came up with a drop of glistening moisture. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s a funeral, Berach!” she tried to laugh.
“Is that all?”
“Aye,” she lied, “that’s all.”
Berach smiled and took her hands. “She always liked ye, ye know,” Berach murmured. “Even if ye think she were scary at first. She was so happy when I told her we were gonna get married.”
“I think she’d have been happy ter see ye with anybody by that point.”
“No, no. She was happy ter see us together. D’ye know what she said to me?”
Joyce shook her head.
Berach swung her hands this way and that. “She said, ‘Now, Berach, ye take care o’ that girl. She’s wise enough ter love ye in spite o’ yer faults an’ she’s taken ye back once — now don’t ye lose her a second time!'” He sighed, but even though his sigh he smiled. “One o’ a kind, weren’t she? We shan’t see another Lilé Brogan again …”
“Not unless we name the baby fer her,” Joyce replied, the words tripping off her tongue without making a courtesy stop at the brain.
“What baby?” Berach chuckled, his father’s quickness on the uptake showing through.
Toinette an’ Grady’s, Joyce wanted to say. The words were on the very tip of her tongue, quivering like a group of children about to jump into the pond, now if only they would come out —
Berach’s jaw fell and he dropped her hands. “… Joyce?”
Joyce felt herself start to nod. And smile. And blush.
She nodded again.
“Not right now, ye loon! There’d be a lot more screamin’ if it was right now!”
“Don’t tell me ye don’t know how babies are made, mister!” Joyce tried to laugh. “If ye don’t …” But Berach was still staring at her, his mouth popping open and shut like a beached fish’s. “Berach? Are ye — are ye happy?”
The way he suddenly clutched her to him answered that question.
“Last I checked.”
She felt Berach begin to nuzzle her. “We’ll name it Lilé.”
“Aye,” Joyce laughed, “but before that, we’ll pray ter yer ma an’ axe her ter pull some strings — ’cause Lord knows that if ye saddle yer firstborn son with a name like Lilé, there’s no way neither of us will ever hear the end o’ it!”