“Aww, c’mon, Davy! It’ll be fun!”
Yes, Davy was sure it would be fun for Basil. He just wasn’t sure how much fun it would be for him. That was the trouble of being the oldest, or the closest thing you got to the oldest. Everything the younger ones did tended to be blamed on you.
“I dunno …” he started.
“All the big boys do it!” Basil whined. “An’ they don’ get hurt none, so why should we? I seen ’em! You seen ’em! Lukas was rollin’ that log jest the other day!”
“Well, aye,” Davy agreed. “But that’s ’cause they’re big boys, I’d reckon. An’ Lukas …” Lukas, Davy thought, had somehow, overnight, stopped being a “big boy” and had become a man. He wasn’t sure how it had happened. All he knew now was that Lukas was as tall and as broad in the shoulders as his da was, or as his da used to be. For as Lukas had grown, Da had seemed to shrink.
However, Basil who could understand none of this shot him a look that Davy found more than a little irksome on the face of a four-year-old. His four-year-old nephew to boot. “But if they’re bigger, that jest means there’s more o’ ’em ter hurt! An’ they don’t get hurt!”
“I don’t think it works like that.”
“That’s silly! If yer arms an’ legs are longer, don’t it mean ye’re more likely ter bang ’em into somethin’?”
“No, I don’t think that’s how it works,” Davy repeated. “I think …”
Basil leaned back and surveyed Davy with one eyebrow raised. Go ahead, said that eyebrow. Tell me what you think.
“I think they’re bigger, an’ they’re stronger, so when they fall off they know how ter fall without gettin’ hurt. An’ we will get hurt.”
Basil still looked unimpressed, so Davy played his trump card. “An’ Mama will be real mad if ye get wet an’ get yer clothes dirty, since she’s supposed ter be watchin’ ye so’s your mama can have a nice day with some rest.”
“Aww, she’s still got Felix with her! She ain’t gonna be restin’ that much!” Basil argued.
“Well, maybe not, but –”
“An’ we can take our clothes off an’ leave ’em somewhere safe! So they won’t get dirty no-how. Come on, Davy! Don’t be a big baby!”
Davy glared. Rich, it was, Basil calling anybody a baby. “I ain’t bein’ a baby.”
“Aye, ye are, aye, ye are! Davy’s a big baby!” Basil danced from foot to foot, pointing, waiting for someone else at the market to see him and laugh — probably at Davy, though, not at Basil. Never mind that Basil was the one making a fool of himself.
Davy put his hands on his hips and took a deep breath. He had to be patient. He knew all about being patient; his mama and da told him to be patient with Bert all the time. The problem was that it was a lot easier to be patient with Bert than it was with Basil. He took a deep breath —
“Basil, why ye jumpin’ around like a clown?” piped Leah.
Basil spun around with a gasp. “I ain’t actin’ like a clown!”
“Coulda fooled me,” Leah said in that … that way she had. That way that sounded so innocent and nonchalant, but was anything but. It was the way she dealt with her Brogan cousins, especially Katie and Paddy. It was the way that always made Davy smile, even if he had to hide his mouth behind his hand to do so.
“You don’t know nothin’ about it,” replied Basil proudly, his hands on his hips, his nose pointed to the sky. He looked an awful lot like his grandma — his other grandma, not Davy’s mama — Goodwife Chevaux. “I’m tellin’ Davy what a big baby he is!”
Leah looked from Basil to Davy and back again. “So … ter tell him he’s a baby, ye’re a clown?”
“I am not a clown!”
“Then what are ye?”
“I’m big an’ brave! Bigger an’ braver than Davy! I’m gonna go log-rollin’!” Basil announced.
Leah’s brows crinkled, and she looked from the log-rolling pool to Basil and back again. “Basil?”
“Aye?” Basil asked, puffing out his chest and putting his hands on his hips.
“Can ye swim?”
Basil’s bluster — to say nothing of his chest — deflated. “Not — not yet. Can ye?”
“Don’t matter. I don’t wanna go log-rollin’.”
“What’s that got ter … oh.” Basil scratched the back of his head. “My papa is gonna teach me once it starts gettin’ warm again …”
“An’ ye want ter go log-rollin’ today?” Leah asked.
“It ain’t that deep!”
“Ye ain’t that tall.”
Davy cringed and waited for the explosion. If there was ever anything that Basil didn’t handle well … it was being proven wrong. By a girl, no less.
“I’m plenty tall fer me age! My grandma says so!”
Leah looked over her shoulder at Davy’s mama. “Well, I guess if Grandma says so …”
“Not Grandma Betsy! Grandma Cerise! An’ she ain’t yer grandma, no-how!” Basil glared and crossed his arms over his chest.
“I know she ain’t –”
“Not Grandma Cerise, Grandma Betsy! Grandma Betsy’s my grandma, she ain’t yers!” Basil snapped.
“Yes she is! She said so herself! An’ my papa –”
“My grandpapa,” Basil interrupted, “says she’s only yer step-grandma. An’ that’s different! It ain’t as good!”
“Da?!” Davy yelped, seeing the look on Leah’s face. His da wouldn’t say something so low, so mean, would he?
“No, Grandpapa Edmond.”
Well, Davy supposed that was better. He liked Goodman Chevaux — he helped him fish, that one time when they went to see Meg and Davy got bored — but he wasn’t Davy’s da, so anything was possible, really.
Leah’s brows wrinkled. “Goodman Chevaux is right nice,” she replied. “I bet he didn’t say that.”
“Well …” Basil squirmed. “Well, maybe …”
Leah raised her eyebrows and blinked as innocently as she could. Davy found himself wishing he could take notes — he could use an innocent expression like that. Maybe if he had an expression like that, he wouldn’t get blamed for the next time Bert knocked over a vase of flowers, or Basil did something right dumb and Davy couldn’t stop him.
“Well, maybe he didn’t say it exactly like that,” Basil admitted.
Leah smiled smugly.
“But I ain’t stupid! I know — an’ ye know — that a step-grandma ain’t as good as a real grandma!”
“Why?” Davy interrupted. “Grandma Betsy don’t treat Leah any different than she treats you.” And he wanted to know, really, why it was that Basil thought it was so important to separate “real” grandparents from “not-real” grandparents. It was selfish. Basil had four — Leah had three — Davy had none. Couldn’t Basil just share with Leah?
“Because,” replied Basil to Leah, “you know it goes in the stories, right? With step-mamas?”
“Basil!” Davy snapped. “Don’t you go nowhere near there!”
“Why not? It’s true, what the stories are!” Basil replied.
“That’s my sister an’ yer auntie that ye’re callin’ Leah’s step-mama!”
“But she is,” Basil replied.
“But that don’t have nothin’ ter do with it!”
“Aye!” Leah chimed it. “Mama Joyce ain’t nothin’ like those mean step-mamas in the stories! She’s — she’s my mama!”
“No, she ain’t,” Basil answered.
“How come ye say that?” Leah asked.
“Don’t listen none to him!” Davy interrupted, and Leah turned her inquiring eyebrows to him. He found himself starting to trip over his words. “He — he –”
He’s a big baby, Davy wanted to say. He don’t know what he’s talkin’ about. He’s only four! An’ he’s jest gonna say somethin’ mean!
But he couldn’t get any of it out.
“My Grandma Cerise said so,” Basil announced. “She said –”
“My papa said that she’s my mama.” Leah’s lips were very tiny and tight, and her eyes were blinking quickly. “He says she’s the only mama that matters. Are — are –” She gulped and put her hands on her hips. “Are ye callin’ my papa a liar?”
“Ye better not,” Davy said. “Berach’s a good man. He’d never tell Leah no lies!”
That seemed to make Basil nonplussed — for a moment. “Well,” Basil mused, “ye don’t have ter be a liar ter be wrong …”
“Like ye’re bein’ now?” Davy snapped. “Don’t ye listen ter him none, Leah. He don’t know nothin’. If yer papa said somethin’ –”
“I ain’t wrong! An’ I know lots! My Grandma Cerise were sayin’ stuff an’ Grandpapa Edmond was shushin’ her! That’s how I know it were right!” Basil crossed his arms over his chest as if daring Davy to take issue with that.
Davy wished he could have, but he didn’t know how. Basil had hit it right on the head: the stuff that the grown-ups talked about when they thought you weren’t there — an that they stopped talking about as soon as they realized you were — that was the stuff that was most right. Every kid knew that, even if the grown-ups seemed to forget it before they even got to Lukas’s age. Leah knew it too, by the way her eyes went suddenly very wide and her lip started to tremble. Davy wanted to put a hand on her arm — or maybe just punch Basil before he could say anything more that would make her sad.
Basil knew the effect he was having, too, by the way he grinned. “An’ ye know what else they were sayin’?”
“No, an’ we don’t want ter. Right, Leah?” he asked, praying she would say yes, so that he could do — something. Maybe bring her back over to his mama and the two of them could help her pick out cabbages. That would probably be better than listening to whatever it was that Basil wanted to tell them. “… Right, Leah?” Davy tried to laugh.
Leah seemed to chew the inside of her lip, then she glanced at Basil. That was all the permission Basil needed. “My grandma said that yer real mama is a bad lady!”
“Basil!” Davy gasped. “Don’t ye –”
But Leah interrupted. “Did — did she say why?”
Davy stared. Leah — Leah normally didn’t talk like that. So soft and subdued. Leah gasped and yelped and shouted and laughed. She didn’t chew her lip when she looked at little boys who didn’t know what they were talking about. She stood up to Katie Brogan!
Basil seemed just as nonplussed as Davy, although Davy would bet his last good fishing worm that it wasn’t for the same reason as him. “Um … not … aye, she did!”
“Basil! Don’t ye lie!” Davy snapped.
Basil glared at Davy, then sighed. It was like the huff of a horse. Davy half expected him to stamp his foot, too. “Well … no … she jest said …”
“Said what?” Leah pressed.
“Said that … ‘ye know what she is. No better than that horrible Shepherd woman!'” Basil replied in what was actually a rather creditable impression of his grandmother’s creaking scold. “An’ that’s bad, ye know?”
“Um …” Leah looked away, probably to hide her ignorance.
“Leah, don’t listen to him. He’s a little meanie. He’s just tryin’ ter say things ter make ye sad,” Davy said, shooting a glare at Basil. “He don’t know what –”
“Hey! Ye’re supposed ter be on my side!” Basil replied, shoving Davy. Davy barely rocked on his heels. “We’re kin!”
“Leah’s our kin too!”
“That don’t matter!”
“Sure it do! All the stories –”
“All the stories say stepmothers is supposed ter be mean,” Leah interrupted. “An’ Mama Joyce ain’t mean. At least not to me, never. At least — not more mean than Papa is. She won’t let me have cake before dinner, neither,” Leah sighed. “But that’s what mamas do, not just stepmamas.”
Basil shot her an insufferably smug smirk. “That’s because Auntie Joyce don’t have her own baby yet. When she does … ye’ll see! She’ll like it better than ye!”
Leah’s eyes flew wide and Davy yelped. “Basil! What’d ye go sayin’ a thing like that fer?”
“It’s true! My mama says ye’re supposed ter say true things!”
“Ye big dummy! Jest because it’s true don’t mean it’s not mean! An’ ye’re not supposed ter say mean things!”
“Goodbye, boys,” Leah murmured, walking off.
“Leah!” Davy protested. “Leah, where’re ye goin’?”
“Ter talk ter yer mama.”
“Yer grandma!” Davy shouted back.
“I dunno. But maybe she will.”
Davy watched her shoulders slump as she walked away. He grabbed Basil’s arm. “Come on.”
“Hey — ow! — where’re we goin’?”
“We’re goin’ with her.”
“Why? I’ll jest get in trouble!”
“That would be why.”
He half-dragged Basil to stand with him as Leah tugged on Davy’s mama’s skirt. “Gr–Goodwife Pelles?”
Davy watched his mother startle, and startle more when she looked down to see it was Leah looking up at her. “Leah. Sweetie, what’s wrong?”
“Are ye me grandma, or me step-grandma?” Leah asked.
“I …” Betsy looked up and at the boys. One eyebrow went up when she saw how Basil tried to slip from Davy’s grasp, or failing that, shrink into the ground. “Leah,” she asked, “why d’ye think it matters?”
“‘Cause it do. A step-grandma ain’t the same as a real grandma.”
“Well, no, not in some ways …”
“An’ all the stories say that steps are bad. Step-mamas an’ step-papas an’ stepsisters an’ stepbrothers …”
Betsy kept that eyebrow raised, and once again her glare slowly moved to Basil. “Leah … what have those boys been tellin’ ye?”
“Hey! I didn’t say nothin’!” Davy protested. “An’ it ain’t my fault if Basil were mean! I tried ter stop him!”
Betsy glanced at Basil, then at Leah. “Sweetie … who was sayin’ things ter ye?”
“I’m not supposed ter tattle.”
“Sweetie, it ain’t tattlin’ if a grown-up axes ye what happened.”
“… Basil was sayin’ things.”
“I thought so. Leah …” Betsy bent to be closer to Leah’s level, then she sighed. “Leah, why don’t we go sit down an’ have a chat about this?
“An’ Basil,” Betsy added as Leah nodded, “ye can sit right next ter me.”
Basil’s shoulders slumped as the four of them marched to the benches by the willow tree. Betsy grabbed Leah’s shoulders and positioned her directly in front of the bench that Betsy sat on. She patted space beside her and Basil reluctantly sat down. Then Betsy took a deep breath. “Now, Leah — what kinds o’ questions d’ye have?”
“I …” She bit her lip. “I dunno.”
“Hmm. Well, let me start by tellin’ ye a thing or two about stories. Ye know that all stories ain’t real, right?”
Leah’s eyes went wide. “They ain’t?”
“Then — then why do folks tell ’em, if they ain’t real?”
“Oh, lots of reasons. D’ye like listenin’ ter stories, Leah?”
“Oh, aye! They’re right fun!”
“Well, that’s one reason why folks tell ’em. They’re fun. They make ye feel happy inside. An’ it ain’t the same as tellin’ lies, ye see. Lies are meant ter hurt an’ deceive. Stories don’t do no harm, because everyone knows that they ain’t true as true an’ so can jest have fun with ’em.”
“Oh …” Leah murmured.
“But,” Betsy pointed out, “there’s true bits in ’em. That’s why we can pretend to believe them while the story is bein’ told. Bits about folks fallin’ in love, an’ parents an’ children, an’ witches an’ wizards doin’ stuff ter make the world a better place or a worser. That all happens, don’t it?”
“Aye,” Leah agreed.
“An’ that means … well, that means that sometimes, the things they say in stories about step-mamas and step-papas an’ all the rest o’ it … sometimes that’s true.”
“But if it’s only true sometimes, why is it always that way in stories?” Leah asked. A very good question, Davy thought.
“Because stories need somebody ter be a bad person, otherwise it’s a right borin’ story. Don’t ye agree? Have ye ever heard a story where there was no fight, no bad guy?”
“No …” Leah murmured.
“Well, think how borin’, how silly that would be.”
Leah wrinkled her brows and thought. “It would be very borin’,” she agreed. “But why don’t they put step-mamas and step-papas in stories where they can be the good guys?”
“Well, let’s think about that, sweetie. Ye know the story o’ Sleepin’ Beauty?”
“Well, what difference would it make to the story if her mama died when she was young, an’ her papa went an’ married a nice lady who was always very good to Sleepin’ Beauty, an’ loved her like her own, an’ was everythin’ a good mama should be?”
Leah tilted her head to one side and considered that. “It wouldn’t make no difference.”
“Aye! So why go into it, when it don’t make no difference? Why not jest skip ter the good part?”
“I guess there’s no reason …”
“Exactly! There’s no reason, so story-makers don’t do it. That’s all.”
“But … but then why do they pick step-mamas ter be the bad guys so often?” Leah asked.
“Well … sometimes step-mamas can be bad an’ mean an’ cruel. Not all the time, an’ not most o’ the time. But sometimes. An’ sometimes …” Betsy tilted her head to the side and her eyes grew far away. Davy wondered what his mama was thinking about. Then she seemed to come to a decision, took a deep breath, and looked again at Leah. “Sometimes, Leah, mamas an’ papas — regular mamas an’ papas — can be bad. Real bad. Worse than any storytime step-mama or step-papa. An’ … an’ folk tell stories, ye see, not jest ter have fun, but to teach lessons, an’ ter help them … deal with the bad things in life. An’ sometimes, it’s less scary to make a step-mama or step-papa be bad than a real mama or papa, even though all grown-ups know it can happen.”
“Mama,” Davy interrupted, “did — did ye ever know a bad mama or papa?”
“Oh, yes, Davy. I knew one.” Betsy turned to Leah. “Do that answer yer question?”
“Aye … but I got another?” Leah asked.
“O’ course, sweetie, what is it?”
“When Mama Joyce has her baby, will she love it more than me?”
“What?” Betsy gasped. “Whatever gave –” She glanced at Basil, squirming. She rolled her eyes. “Leah, let me tell ye somethin’ about mamas. Ye see, I know a lot about them, bein’ one meself.”
“It ain’t a baby in yer tummy that makes ye a mama. It’s the love in yer heart. An’ let me tell ye somethin’, Leah …” Betsy dusted herself off, rose, and hugged Leah tight and close. She tried to whisper what she was to say in Leah’s ear, but Davy heard anyway.
“Yer Mama Joyce has more love in her heart fer ye than ye can ever imagine.”