“WRIGHT DAMN YE, BERACH!”
Berach winced and hunched over the bar counter even more. “When does the screamin’ stop?” he asked the room at large.
“Fer most women havin’ babies?” asked Neil. “Or jest fer Joyce?”
Berach glanced at the ceiling above. Hard to believe that all that separated the men in the bar from the miracle of life was just a few inches of creaking wood. Clearly not enough inches of wood, for that matter. It was enough to give you the shivers, if Berach wasn’t afraid that shivering might cause him to throw up all the ales that the other men had plied on him.
Still, he gave Neil’s question its due consideration. “I guess I’ll axe fer most women,” he replied, “because if I know Joyce, she’ll be yellin’ at me until that kid is sleepin’ at nights an’ not wreakin’ havoc in the days. Which’ll be …”
“After ye’re both dead,” laughed Martin.
“I already am dead, ain’t I?” Berach murmured, glancing again at the ceiling. But while Joyce’s yells were loud enough to filter down to the pub, the murmurs of the other women — the midwife Kata Thatcher, Joyce’s mother and sister, and Ailís — were not. If Joyce wasn’t cursing him to hell and back, Berach had no idea what was going on.
“Naw,” Martin laughed with the ease of a five-time father. “She’ll fergive ye as soon as Kata puts that baby in her arms. Ye jest watch.”
“But don’t be expectin’ her ter let ye try nothin’ fer a good few weeks yet!” laughed Pierre, though his laugh cut off when Martin turned to him with a raised eyebrow. He slumped on his stool.
“S’true,” Neil murmured, and Berach turned to him with a raised eyebrow. “What Pierre said — don’t let ‘im quietin’ right down make ye think it ain’t. But that’s jest because Joyce, well, she’ll be … sore down there. Ye –”
“I think I got it!” Berach turned away. He liked Neil, he really did, and he knew his brother-in-law always meant well, but there were some things a man just did not want to think too hard about.
He glanced again at the ceiling, wondering if his not wanting to think about these things would send a subliminal message to Joyce to be reminding him of them. But she did not yet yell out again.
“Easy, now,” Martin chuckled slowly. He patted Berach’s shoulder. “Let’s not be scarin’ the first-time father.”
“I am not a first-time father.” Berach’s curled fist clenched without asking so much as a by-your-leave from his brain. But he wasn’t! He’d not be letting anyone forget about his Leah. She’d been worrying about that, the poor mite, especially after that Basil had said things to her. Her little face when he dropped her off at Grady and Toinette’s had been so drawn and solemn.
“Well, no, o’ course not,” Martin answered, “I shouldn’t have put it that way. But this is yer first time husbandin’ the mother o’ yer babe, and even though ye might know lots about takin’ care o’ the babe, it’s lots ye’ve ter be learnin’ about takin’ care o’ its ma.”
Berach sat up. “Eh? Like … what?”
“Well, fer starters,” Martin began, “she’ll be right moody fer the next few weeks.”
“Aye,” Neil agreed, “an’ jest about everythin’ ye’ll do with the baby will be wrong, somehow.”
“But I already know about babies …” Berach replied, mystified.
“Don’t matter, ye’ll still be wrong,” Pierre chuckled.
“Aye. It’s best ter let the womenfolk get on with gettin’ ter know the baby,” Martin continued. “She’ll be nervous an’ unsure, an’ the last thing she’ll be needin’ ye ter do is seem like ye know what ter do when she don’t.”
“But … don’t women know what ter do?” Berach asked, looking at the men down the bar with growing panic. He had thought that his unsureness and confusion over how to handle Leah in those early days was simply because he was a man. There was nothing any woman in his life had said to indicate that it might be otherwise — that everybody was just as confused and panicked in those early days. If that was the case … well, Berach did not know whether to be relieved or annoyed.
“Not as much as they’ll have ye think they do!” Pierre laughed.
Well, I’ll be …
“But most women have practice,” Martin pointed out. “Between their ma’s other babies, or if they were the youngest, nieces and nevvies … an’ with Joyce, well, she learned a bit o’ being a ma with Leah.”
“Not when Leah was that little,” Berach muttered, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Aw, she learned about that when Lukas was young –”
“Hey! Joyce ain’t that much older than me!”
Martin rolled his eyes. “An’ Davy, as I was about ter say. An’ even Bert, a little bit. So Joyce’ll have a lot covered. Ye needn’t worry a bit.”
“But all babies is different,” Neil pointed out. “Lord! I thought I knew what I was doin’, after Nellie an’ Josie — but then we had Jake. Nellie an’ Josie, they was quiet little things — oh, they crawled an’ they’d get inter anythin’, but they didn’t do too much yellin’. But Jake! Screamed his head off from the day he was born! An’ he’d play with anybody who came near ‘im, while Nellie an’ Josie are still hidin’ behind their ma’s skirts when somebody looks at ’em funny. But while Nellie an’ Josie would crawl after anythin’, Jake wants everythin’ brought terhim … oh, I could go on an’ on,” Neil chuckled.
Berach rather hoped he would — if he was about to be as blindsided by his second child as he was by the first, he would really like to know about it in advance.
But Martin killed all hope of that when he turned to Lukas and said, “Hope ye’re takin’ notes, lad. Don’t want ter have ter be goin’ inter all o’ this again a year or so from now.”
“Oh, it’ll be longer than that!” Lukas laughed. “Ella an’ I ain’t havin’ no kids until we’re good an’ ready fer ’em!”
The look on the poor boy’s face when every man around the bar turned back his head and laughed would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so pitiful.
“Famous last words, my friend!” Pierre laughed. “Lord, if that ain’t what every man thinks!”
“An’ then one night,” Neil said, “ye get a little too drunk …”
“Or too, um, involved,” Berach continued.
“Or just too absent-minded,” Martin said.
“An’ then, bam! So much fer bein’ careful.” Pierre shook his head.
“Pshaw! I ain’t jest talkin’ about that,” Lukas replied. “Ella’s ma is teachin’ her all sorts o’ stuff. Like I said, we ain’t havin’ no babies until we’re good an’ ready.”
Berach edged forward. If only somebody had told him when he was eighteen — but no. If somebody had, he would have never had Leah. Or, more likely, he still would have had Leah, because he would have never thought to practice those “ways” when he was paying for his pleasure. He would have thought, stupidly, that any offspring that resulted from that night was the whore’s problem, not his. Lord, what an ass he had been. He took a long swallow to chase away the memory of it.
“Hmm,” Martin murmured. “Ye sure that’s what ye’re wantin’, lad?”
“Why not? Ain’t no good ter bring kids inter the world when ye can’t be feedin’ ’em an’ ain’t got no way ter be raisin’ ’em. Ain’t that what ye always told me, Da?” Lukas asked, putting an emphasis on that last syllable only a testy eighteen-year-old could manage.
“S’different, once ye’re married,” Martin replied. “Then, why, if ye’re ready ter be married — an’ ye an’ Ella are ready fer that, son — ye’ll be ready ter have babies, soon enough.”
“Kata Thatcher don’t think so. An’ I think she’d know,” Lukas answered.
“Widow Thatcher, in her line o’ work … well, I’m sure she sees lots o’ sad cases. Skewed her thinkin’, somewhat, an’ who would blame ‘er? She’d thinkin’ it would be much easier ter be preventin’ the misery than tryin’ ter cure it. But the Church says different, son, an’ ye know it.”
Lukas wiggled in his seat, and apparently Berach had just enough dignity to keep from wiggling with him. “Da …”
“I’m jest sayin’, lad. Ye were at both yer sisters’ weddins, ye were, an’ at Pierre’s brother’s an’ lots of other weddins besides … what’s the purpose o’ marriage?”
Martin did not press, but he did watch his son with an upraised brow.
Lukas sighed. “Kids.”
“Exactly,” Martin nodded. “An’, son, ye know right well that the Church would say that if ye ain’t ready fer kids yet, ye ain’t ready ter be married.”
“Oh, come now!” Neil laughed, thankfully coming to poor Lukas’s rescue. “If there were true, there wouldn’t be nobody marryin’. Ain’t nobody ready fer kids until they has ’em. Besides, them monks an’ nuns — what do they know about it? They ain’t allowed ter be marryin’ or havin’ kids. Me, I thinks there are worse things that a couple can be doin’ than waitin’ a little bit — jest a little bit — before they have kids. Get used ter bein’ married first, then add a kid inter the mix.”
“Ain’t what the Church says,” Martin pointed out.
“Church says a lot of things,” came a murmur from the other end of the bar — but whatever Pierre had been thinking, he did not choose to elaborate on it.
Berach drummed on the table and looked at the ceiling. “It’s been … awful quiet up there, ain’t it?” he whispered.
“That’s a good sign!” Martin was quick to say.
“It … is?”
“Aye. When she’s yellin’, it means she’s not so far along that she can’t be concentratin’ on the task at hand. But if she ain’t yellin’ no more, well, that means she’s got ter be concentratin’ on the hard part. Baby should be born right soon, I’d think,” Martin finished, nodding.
Berach glanced at Neil, putting the questions he dared not voice in the presence of his father-in-law — namely, Is he just saying that to keep me calm? — into his expression.
Neil stroked his beard and appeared to give the notion due consideration. “Well, that makes sense. An’ think o’ it this way: ye don’t want the first thing yer baby hears ter be his ma cussin’ ye out, d’ye?” he asked, slipping off the stool.
“Hey, where are ye goin’?” Pierre asked.
“Pierre, I’ve been drinkin’ since sunset with ye lot, where d’yethink I’m goin’?” Neil asked. The men chuckled.
But with Neil gone, a silence descended over the room, broken only by Berach’s fingertips drumming on the counter. Ter hell with this! He stood. “I’m gonna throw a few rounds o’ darts, anybody want ter be joinin’ me?”
“Ye’d have ter get the nice lady ter stop if ye wanted one o’ us ter be playin’ with ye,” Pierre pointed out, nodding to the redhead.
“Aw, she won’t mind if she gets a few joinin’ her, do ye, Michelle?”
“Not at all, sir,” Michelle smiled. Berach liked Michelle. She’d moved into Joyce’s cottage after Joyce had married him. How could he not like another single woman moving into Joyce’s cottage — even though she was manifestly not at pretty or personable as his Joyce?
“See, lads?” Berach laughed. “She don’t mind!”
“She’s jest humorin’ ye,” Lukas laughed.
“Aye, an’ she wants ter be out of the way in case yer throw goes wild! Lord, Berach, how much have ye had ter drink?”
Berach glanced at the ceiling. He knew exactly how long it had been since Joyce last cursed him — so, clearly, not enough. “Enough ter make me even better at this!”
“Oh, ho!” laughed Michelle. “I’ll believe that when I see it!”
“Bah! Ye’ll be seein’ it as soon as it’s me turn!”
Lukas leapt around and straddled the chair — ah, to be eighteen again, and able to do that with as many ales as Lukas had in him, and to not care that is tunic was pushed up well past his knees in order to do that. “I’d like ter be seein’ that!”
Martin got off his stood, turned it around, and clambered back onto it again. “Aye, me too. Let’s be seein’ how ye’re doin’, Berach.”
“An’ see if ye can be beatin’ me score,” Michelle added, pulling the darts out the board and handing them to Berach.
“Aww, this won’t be too hard.” He sighted down the dart, eying the bullseye.
He threw …
And the dart landed in the wall.
“Ooh!” Lukas laughed. “Oh, Michelle, ye’re lookin’ more likely to win!”
“Maybe ye should be axin’ fer best two o’ three,” Pierre chortled.
The door open and shut, revealing Neil. He shot a bemused glance at Berach and Michelle, shook his head and went back to the bar.
“Bah!” Berach scoffed. “I’m jest gettin’ started, I am!” He aimed and threw again …
Well, at least this time he hit the board. In the lowest-scoring section, but he did hit it.
“Better be gettin’ better luck next time, Berach,” Michelle laughed, hands crossed over her chest. “Else ye’ll be goin’ back ter the bar with yer tail between yer legs, ye will!”
Berach snorted, took aim — and hesitated. “I don’t suppose ye would happen ter be interested in best two out o’ three?”
“Nope! Ye lose now, ye lose fer all time!”
“Damn,” Berach murmured. He took aim again.
The door opened. The door shut. Someone spoke. “Oh, Berach … there’s someone here who’s dying to meet you …”
A baby whimpered — Berach spun on his heel —
And that was how he very nearly greeted his and Joyce’s first baby, or very possibly Joyce’s mother, with a dart to the eye. Luckily for everyone, even as his jaw fell, so did the dart: harmlessly to the floor.
A cheer went up from the bar area, but Berach was too busy staring at the baby to take part.
“Well?” Betsy laughed, jiggling the baby. “Don’t ye want ter meet ‘er? She’s right curious ter see this Papa feller she’s heard so much about.”
“Oh boy, Ma, don’t make the baby cry!” Lukas laughed. “After what Joyce has been sayin’ about Berach all night?”
“Ye heard that?” Betsy gasped.
Martin glared at Lukas. “Unfortunately …”
“Oh, Lord, Joyce’ll be mortified!” Betsy slapped her free hand over her face. But Berach was too busy hurrying to greet the baby to reassure Betsy that she, right now, was probably more mortified over the incident than Joyce would ever be.
“An’ Joyce …?” Berach asked.
“Fine, me lad, fine. Kata said it could have hardly went better.
Berach grinned, now that he had permission to focus all of his attention on the little grub in Betsy’s arms. “Why, hello, little fel–little–er–what were ye sayin’ it was, again?” Berach asked.
“A girl,” Betsy replied.
“A g–Lillie! My baby Lillie!” Berach yelped, waving to the baby. The baby let out a startled wail, but it was quickly quieted as Berach kept talking to her. “Lillie! Hello, me lass! It’s me, yer Papa!”
The baby blinked her big eyes — golden-brown eyes — at him. Berach felt tears spring to his own. “She — she’s even got me ma’s eyes,” he whispered.
“Yer eyes, too,” Betsy smiled. “So ye’re namin’ her Lillie?”
Berach, just in the process of marveling over the tiny little hand that was patting his shoulder, paused. “Joyce didn’t tell ye the name?”
Betsy shook her head. “She said to axe ye …”
Oh, is that yer game, Joyce? Berach grinned. “Well, her full name ain’t Lillie.”
Betsy cocked her head, merely curious. Poor thing, with no idea what was about to hit her.
“Her full name’s gonna be Lilibeth.”
Betsy still wore that small, curious, polite smile — until it dropped from her face, replaced by shock. “Lili–Lilibeth?”
Berach only grinned.
“Martin!” Betsy called. “Martin, did ye hear? Lilibeth! They’re namin’ her Lilibeth! Oh, Wright bless ye two!” Betsy shouted, tears coming to her eyes even as Martin jumped from his stool and caught her. “Lilibeth!”
“Lili-beth!” Berach called, holding the baby high above his head and laughing as she blinked at the new view. “Look at ye! As smart as yer grandma were already!” He laughed and brought her back to his shoulder. “An’ with any luck, ye’ll be as sweet as yer other grandma, too.”
Lillie blinked her wise eyes at him and nestled against his shirt. Berach smiled and kissed the top of her head. He’d forgotten how wonderful it was to kiss a baby’s head. He hadn’t been able to enjoy it properly with Leah.
Leah! “Oh, me lass,” Berach murmured, rubbing the baby’s back, “wait until mornin’, lassie. Ye ain’t met yer favorite person yet. She’s stayin’ with her cousins, she is, but in the mornin’, I’ll go get ‘er, an’ –”
“What d’ye mean, she ain’t met her favorite person yet? I’m right here!”
And so Berach’s world filled with galloping, galumphing eighteen-year-old. “Hi, Lillie!” Lukas called. “I’m yer Uncle Lukas, an’ I’m gonna be yer favorite!”
Lillie yelped, and Berach heard himself making the same shushing noises that had worked wonders on Leah. Lillie’s gaze, surprised, turned to him.
“Now, now,” Berach murmured, smiling for the baby’s sake, “Lukas, ye be careful, ye. She ain’t met yer brothers yet.”
“Bah! They’re practically her age. They don’t count as uncles. More like cousins who happen ter be her ma’s brothers.”
“Oh, is that so? Well, then, she ain’t met Neil yet.”
“Neil?” Lukas turned to Berach with a fallen jaw. “Neil?”
“Leah’s always liked ‘im.”
“Aye, that’s because his competition was Gra–er –”
“Grady, aye, I know, but ye ain’t pushed Neil out o’ the favorite uncle spot with Leah yet.”
“All the more reason to start early with Lillie!”
Berach laughed, and Lillie looked hurriedly up at him. Berach laughed again to see it.
And so he had heaven for a few short minutes, while everyone came to meet the baby, coo at her, say silly things to her. Lillie seemed to take her moment in the sun with remarkable aplomb, though she kept looking at Berach every time he spoke, looked at him as she didn’t look at others. Leah hadn’t done that when she was as young as Lillie — odd, that.
But too soon, Betsy was at the head of the line and plucked Lillie from his arms. “She’ll be needin’ ter go back ter her ma,” Betsy said, patting the baby gently.
“But — but –”
“I was jest bringin’ her down so’s the other girls could get Joyce nice an’ cleaned up before she fed her.”
“Ye can come up in half an hour or so,” Betsy said. “Have some more fun with yer boys before real life sets in, aye?”
Betsy didn’t listen to argument — she left, which would have been fine if she hadn’t taken Lillie with her.
Yet … Berach’s mind turned the matter over.
He had just been given permission to drink at much as he wanted, make as many ribald comments as he wanted, laugh as much as he wanted — kick his heels as much as he wanted, at least for the next half hour or hour.
Apparently Lilé was not Lillie’s only wise grandmother.
“Hey, lads!” Berach called. “Me wife jest had a baby! An’ now we’re gonna have a party! Rest o’ the drinks are on me!”