Simon had thought a full cradle was a symbol of responsibility, drudgery, expense and mind-boggling terror. He had thought that was bad. He was wrong.
A full cradle was nothing compared to an empty one.
He had spent much time over these last few days staring at that cradle, more time staring at it than he had when Marie was still in it. He had no idea how a pair of blue eyes and wiggling hands glimpsed out of the corner of an eye could so fill a world. He had no idea how the loss of them could render a whole world so empty.
Simon had been a terrible father to Marie, and he would admit it now. He hadn’t held her enough, or tickled her enough, or loved her enough. He had left that all to Roma, because Roma seemed to want to do it and to enjoy it. He would hold Marie from time to time, watching the big blue eyes watch him and wondering just what the hell he was supposed to do now. He should have known that Marie was not long for this world. There was no way a baby’s eyes could be so clear and knowing unless the angels were still whispering to her.
The babies whom the angels whispered to never lasted very long. Why would they want to stay, when angels were offering them a chance to leave? The angels probably told Marie all about Simon, too. Simon didn’t blame Marie for leaving when presented with the knowledge that staying would mean putting up with Simon as a father. Simon probably would have left too, given the choice.
He just wished Marie would have stayed for Roma’s sake.
Roma barely ate. Hardly slept. Scarcely spoke a word since the funeral. Simon would never forget her face when Father Hugh started to sprinkle earth over Marie’s baby coffin. The blood had drained right out of it, leaving Roma as waxen and lifeless as Marie had been before they placed her into the coffin. Father Hugh had taken one look at her face and stopped, skipped that part of the service and moved onto the next. If a bloody monk were understood that the mindless ritual was becoming too much for the mourners and stopped, then it was a sign that things had gone too far.
Kata had stayed with Roma for the past week. She had been the one to comfort Roma those first few days. She and Roma had shared the bed at nights, and Simon had camped out on the couch. For as much as Simon had groused and complained about the couch or floor at Kata’s house, Kata could take the bed for the next month and Simon wouldn’t complain as long as it made Roma better.
But it couldn’t. And Kata wouldn’t. She had her own life, her own grief to bear. That left Simon.
No, Simon couldn’t blame Marie for leaving at all.
He pulled out the chair across from Roma and sat, slowly. “So,” he said by way of starting a conversation, anything to take Roma out of herself. “I think Pinkie’s about ready fer the table, don’t ye?”
Pigs. He was talking about the pigs! He never talked about the pigs if he could help it. Roma ran that part of his life, just as she ran the cleaning and the cooking and the other chores.
Just as she had run Marie.
“Eh?” Simon asked, praying she’d look up. Even if she told him to shut the fuck up and let her grieve, that would be something. He’d take that.
Roma only moaned a little, shuffling her arms so that they made a more comfortable pillow for her head. Or maybe she was only trying to relieve a cramp without having to actually look at Simon. How was he to know?
“We’ll have good eatin’ this winter,” Simon said, more to fill the void than anything else. “Won’t matter how — how other things turn out.” They should have sold the meat. That was their plan: sell all the meat, so the money from Simon’s “smuggling” would be easier to explain. But what the hell did that matter now? They only had to save thirty pieces of silver now for his and Roma’s freedom.
Thirty pieces of silver. Simon wished the number didn’t sound like a death knell in his head.
“Roma,” Simon asked, “Roma, look at me. Say somethin’.”
She did not say anything. But she at least looked up.
He wanted nothing more than to push some of that dark hair out of her face, away from her eyes. Marie would have had hair every bit as fine and soft; Simon knew it. He wished it could have been granted to them to see it. But it hadn’t been. Roma may have earned that right a thousand times over, but Simon had squandered it all.
His hands folded, he cracked his knuckles one by one. It didn’t fill the silence, but at least it gave him something to listen to while he tried to think of something that would. “Ye gonna have Nicole any time soon?” he asked, finally.
Roma shook her head.
“I think ye should,” Simon continued. “She’s a nice girl. And ye two can … can … I dunno. Do girl stuff.”
Nicole had come to the funeral. Simon thought he would never be able to repay her for the way she had held Roma after and whispered something into her ear. And she had cried! It wasn’t even her baby, or her relative, and she’d cried for little Marie. Plenty of folks thought there wasn’t no use in crying over their own babies, since so many died, but Nicole had cried for somebody else’s.
But Roma looked so drawn-out and exhausted by the suggestion that Simon didn’t dare to pursue it.
So much for that. “What — what about goin’ back ter the Onion?” Simon asked. “Ye been considerin’ it, hon?”
She had to say something to that. Or so Simon thought. But Roma only looked away.
“Ye don’t have ter, ye know,” he continued, babbling on with no more sense or heed than a brook leaping from rock to rock across the mountains. Any one leap could send him falling headlong from the precipice, but what did that matter? He’d make a lovely waterfall on the way down. “It ain’t like we need the money –”
Roma turned away, and Simon heard her snap even though she didn’t say a word: Aye, we don’t, now that we don’t have to worry about Marie’s ten pieces of silver, do we?
“I mean, I can provide fer me own family, I hope,” Simon stumbled along. He was going to fall any moment, he knew. “But hopefully … it’ll give ye somethin’ ter do. Dis-distract ye. Maybe –” He reached out for her, smiling shyly.
Roma stood up and walked away.
“Roma!” Simon stumbled out of his chair and followed her. “Roma, talk to me!”
Even if she just said that she didn’t want to talk, that would be something. Even if she said she never wanted him to touch her again, that would be something. He’d take what he could get now, before Roma went so deep into her personal hell that there was no bringing her out again, not now, not ever.
She went into the bedroom. Simon pounded after her.
He darted toward her, away from her, around her, anywhere he could see her face. Roma turned away from him. “Roma …” He laid a hand — no, a finger — on her elbow. Roma snatched it away.
“Honey …” Simon murmured. “Honey, say somethin’.”
She didn’t say anything. Somehow, her turning had brought her around to the empty bassinet kept in the bedroom. Simon watched the glassy tears pool at the bottoms of her eyes.
One bubbled over and spilled. Simon reached with one tiny finger to wipe it away. Roma turned, then brought her hands up to her face, her shoulders wracked with silent sobs.
Simon’s arm came up of its own accord. It would drape Roma’s shoulders. It would pull her closer to him. It would lean her head on his chest, and he would hold her, and somehow they would begin to get through this.
Neither Simon nor his arm reckoned with Roma shoved him away with enough force to send him rocking and shouting, “Get the hell away from me!”
But that certainly was something.
“Roma …” Simon pleaded.
“Don’t ye touch me! Don’t ye — ye dare touch me! It’s yer fault! It’s all yer bloody fault!”
Simon yelped and jumped back.
He thought he had known that. He thought there was nobody who could tell him that. He hadn’t expected those words to come barreling into him with all the force and all the pain of a sword thrust to the gut. Not to the heart — you died really quick after a blow to the heart. You probably didn’t feel a thing. The gut was another story. It took days to die from a blow to the gut, if you were really unlucky.
It would probably take Simon months to die from this. If he was lucky.
“Ye and yer damned lusts! It’s all yer fault!”
Simon reeled again. She knew? She knew about the whorehouse?
But Billy had sworn he wouldn’t tell!
“Roma, I’m so sorry,” Simon whispered. “If I — if I –”
But how the hell could he make it up for her? He’d been dallying with a scantily-clad vampire whore while his baby was dying. He thanked the Lord that he hadn’t had the stomach to take Mirelle to bed that night. He thanked the angels that Billy hadn’t had to go hunting for him upstairs. And he thanked all the good spirits, all the gods Sims had come up with in their errors, anything in this universe that looked kindly on the Sim race that he had gotten back to Kata’s house in time to hold his baby girl and say goodbye before she died.
He never should have left that night. He never should have gotten so impatient and cooped-in and annoyed with his starry-eyed sister-in-law and utter brat of a brother-in-law. Maybe if he hadn’t left, Marie wouldn’t have given up on him and died.
“What do that matter? It’s too late now!” Roma shouted. “It’s yer fault — yer fault — yer fault!”
“I know,” Simon admitted, and hung his head.
That did not bring forth the reaction he was anticipating. “Ye — ye knew?” Roma rocked back on her heels. “Ye — ye knew and ye did it anyway?”
“What? No, no! I didn’t know — then! I know now — but not then! Roma! Ye can’t think I’d have done that if I’d known — known –”
Goin’ ter Mirelle would kill Marie.
“How couldn’t ye have known?” Roma sobbed. “How couldn’t ye see? Ye ain’t a — a –” She choked, and her little fists pounding on Simon’s chest finished the rest of her sentence for her.
But her fists didn’t cause any more damage than Marie’s baby whacks and punches. She was more likely to hurt her hand on the mail than to hurt him. Like Marie. Simon grabbed her hands and held them fast, enveloped in his, his thumb stroking the back to check for injury.
“Get yer filthy hands off of me!” she yelled, pulling back from him. Simon let her go.
“I hate ye!” she shouted. “I hate ye, I hate ye, I hate ye! I hate ye an’ ye ain’t never touchin’ me again!”
And he did understand. Simon wouldn’t want him touching him, either. The only thing about this that he didn’t understand was Billy.
Billy! That boy’s furious eyes boring holes into the side of Simon’s skull the whole run home. That boy staring at Simon like he was worse than the dirt on his shoes after Marie had died, and Ella had sat in shock, and Roma had cried and cried and Kata couldn’t begin to comfort her. And Simon? He’d sat like a lump on a log, holding Marie’s cooling and stiffening little body, wondering if he could ever pray hard enough to bring her back.
He’d cornered Billy the next morning, trying to remember what kinds of bribes could buy a twelve-year-old’s eternal silence. Roma didn’t need to know where Billy had found him. Let her think he’d gone down to the pub. But Billy had pushed him away, his gaze even more scornful than it had been the night before.”Tell ‘er? Ye think I’d tell ‘er? With all the rest she’s got now, ye think I’d break what was left o’ her heart?”
Billy hadn’t said, but Simon had known they both thought, the obvious corollary: Billy at twelve was already too much of a man to hurt a woman by telling her what her feckless fool of a husband had done, never mind ever doing it himself.
“Aye, now, when it’s too late! Didn’t yer ma never tell ye where babies come from?”
Simon blinked. “Ba-bies?”
“Babies!” Roma sobbed. “Ye weren’t careful! Ye were supposed ter be careful! I told ye we had ter be careful fer the first year!”
Be careful — be careful doing what?
And then the most horrible thought of all came to him. What if Roma wasn’t talking about last night? What if Billy had been enough of a man to keep his word? What if she was talking about some other night — some other night, with Mirelle or some other whore. which had resulted in a bastard baby? And what if it hadn’t been Marie’s choice to leave, but the Lord Wright had taken her as a judgment against him?
A judgment for a bastard baby he didn’t even know about? “No,” he whispered.
“Yes!” Roma yelled savagely. “Ye did it! Ye got me increasin’ again! An’ that –” Her voice started to quaver. “That’s why Marie died!”
Increasin’? But I —
And then Simon understood. “Ye’re — ye’re with child again?”
“YES!” she shouted.
That was when Simon said completely the wrong thing. “Roma — but Roma, that’s wonderful.”
That was exactly what his mother had said after the funeral! She’d held Simon close and tight for a few moments, her body feelings frailer and more quivery than ever. Then she had patted his cheek and whispered into his ear. “Get her bearin’ again, soon. I’ve seen lots o’ young mothers like Roma, son. It’s the best thing fer ’em. Make her a mother again.”
If Roma was already pregnant, then — then she was that much closer to being a mother again. And maybe she would be happy again. It wouldn’t be Marie, but it would be something. Simon even felt himself start to smile for the first time in days.
“No, it ain’t wonderful!” Roma shouted. The illusion shattered.
“It’s horrible! It’s horrible! That’s what k-killed Marie!” She brought her hands up to her face. “Ye’re not supposed ter get pregnant when ye’re nursin’! It — it must have spoiled the milk! An’ Marie was drinkin’ s-spoiled milk, an’, an’ that must’ve been why she got sick! And then she died …” Roma gasped and sobbed. “An’ she must have thought that I didn’t love her enough!”
“No, no,” Simon protested. “No, Roma, she would have never thought that!” Marie would have known about Simon, aye, but never Roma. There was no room in a rational mind for doubts about Roma.
“Then why did she die?” Roma screeched.
“I don’t know,” Simon lied. “But — but Roma …” His hand moved to alight on her shoulder, but he stopped it just in time. “This — this is a good thing. Ain’t it? We’ll have another baby. It’ll be like startin’ over. Ye’ll see.”
“I don’t want to start over!” She stamped her foot with every “want.” “I don’t want another baby! I want Marie! Marie! Marie! Marie!”
Stomp, stomp, stomp.
“But — but we –”
“Oh, get out! Get out, get out, get out!”
Simon got out.
But he stayed by the door, listening. Letting her every last sob rack his soul. It was, after all, penance, of a sort.
And if he wanted a prayer of being able to keep this second baby, he would need to do a lot of penance in the coming months.